Speed Up Election Results – Not so fast, with another half-baked solution

The Courant published an Editorial in today’s print edition: Speed Up Election Results , the online version dated yesterday is titled Half-Baked Reporting System Keeps Election Results A Mystery <read>

We half agree with the Courant and the Secretary of the State. We have supported the idea, applauded the start that the Secretary took, yet there are problems with the system as proposed, and even more problems with the some of the views and ideas in the Courant’s Editorial.

Yet, one half-baked manual system does not deserve a half-baked automated one to solve the problems.

We also remind readers that the Courant is one of the newspapers that led the fight to require expensive paper legal notices instead of allowing for web based notices.

We see several problems with the Courant’s expectations and the system tested last year, presumably the same system tested this year, since the Secretary of the State’s web site hosts the same training as before:

  • The system expects every single Moderator and Head Moderator to input all the results on election night, that is about eight hundred individuals, many in their 70’s and beyond, expected to start election day at the polls at 5:00am, working the polls until 8:00pm and then work to close the polls, close the voting machines, count some ballots by hand, secure ballots, secure materials, and report results.
  • In a simple Municipal Election in Glastonbury, with 26 candidates, polling place Moderators have approximately 78 numbers to input, while the Absentee Ballot Moderator would have 12 times that number to input or 936.
  • In Bridgeport those numbers would be 19 candidates, 57 numbers for each polling place, and 2850 for the Absentee Moderator.
  • In Greenwich it varies by district, in District 1 it is 55 candidates and 165 numbers for the polling place, perhaps 3600 for the Absentee Moderator.
  • I would challenge the Courant Editorial Board to work for 15 straight hours, service the public, managing a team of individuals that work one day a year, and within one-half hour input those numbers.
  • To add to the challenge, the Secretary offers input via smart phone, so the entry can be performed at the polling place, if it has cell service, saving the drive to Town Hall. By the way, Moderators keep a log of incidents during the day and that has to be typed in as well.
  • If you are a central count Absentee Ballot Moderator you do not have that log to put in, you are at Town Hall, so you can surely use a laptop computer, you started the day a bit later, but in addition to entering a few hundred or thousand numbers, you have to print the optical scanner tape, which can easily use up more than the whole half-hour the Courant Editorial Board expects so that they can get the results on their schedule.
  • That is up to thirty-four individuals in a town all doing that at the same time, hopefully few would have problems with their passwords or need other help from the town or state.

Once again, we are in favor of a fully baked solution:

  • Allow towns to hire competent data entry help, to arrive fresh at town hall at 8:00pm, and type in the data under the guidance and supervision of the Moderators and Head Moderator. (In one medimu -sized town where  I have worked,  as Absentee Moderator – I read the numbers, the Head Moderator typed them into a spreadsheet, a Registrar watched him to check his input, he printed the data and the Registrar and I checked it against my hand written records and the machine tapes – we always found a couple of things to correct in the process)
  • Forget the smart phones, just  too slow for this much data.
  • Test the system in real life and set reasonable expectations for timing. Most towns should be able to get the data in by Midnight, but sometimes there will be good reasons for delays.
  • The goal should be reasonably accurate data the first time. That means double checking entry. Double checking any transcription and manual addition required (Try as we might, it is not possible to machine count write-ins and other special situations that require hand counting of ballots)

Here is the Editorial with our annotations in []

By Wednesday afternoon, official results for all of Tuesday’s local elections were still not up on the secretary of the state’s website.

This is crazy. [Perhaps, but lets consider what we would say about this editorial after reviewing it]

By contrast, Florida voters knew by 8 p.m. Tuesday all their local election results — because Florida state law says officials have to report them to the state a half-hour after polls close and update them every 45 minutes thereafter. [Florida has improved after 2000, but Connecticut has wisely opted not to have its electronic voting machines connected to phone lines or the Internet. Pretty much impossible to get the job done this quickly without an electronic connection from each scanner to some central location]

Also, Florida has early voting, and officials are required by law to count those votes and absentee ballots ahead of time so that they’re ready for posting as soon as polls close. [Counting Absentee Ballots ahead of time is not such a great idea, since it opens the same issues as reporting Presidential elections from East to West, in this case with days of advanced notice. We are in favor of early voting, yet it would be very expensive in Connecticut with our town by town election management. This is not a simple, nor an inexpensive change. Wisely Connecticut does not allow reporting of any absentee results until 8:00pm. We do not allow counting to start before 10:00am on election day, and we get it done on election day.]
[Consider other states, like California, which counts absentee ballots for weeks after elections. Somehow their voters and media have survived]

But residents of Hartford, West Hartford, Windsor, Waterbury, Tolland and a bunch of other towns and cities that rely on the secretary of the state’s website for election results couldn’t get them the day after the election. [We agree that is too long. It is not the reporting system. The current system, with all its faults works for most of the towns, much faster than that. Something else must be delaying those results. Sometimes it is better to get the right results than pressure overwhelmed officials (see Bridgeport 2010)]

In some towns, voters won’t know Thursday, either. [Once again, they should ask their local officials for an explanation. Apparently the Courant has not considered reporting on the actual reason for such delays, instead assuming its the reporting system]

Instead, curious townsfolk who clicked on those municipalities on the secretary of the state’s website (www.ct.gov/sots) saw the message “Check back later for ‘Official Elections Results’ as submitted by the town.”

This is maddening.

What’s Up With This?

In the digital age, election results should be made public very quickly, and in many states they are. But here in the Land of Steady Habits, we’re still reporting results in some places the way we’ve done it for decades. Our breakthrough technology is the fax machine. [Actually towns can also use email, now that the law requires towns to provide email to all registrars]

Some towns make up their own reporting forms rather than use the state’s, and have state troopers, who usually have better things to do, drive their results to Hartford. [As allowed by antiquated state law. We also note that forms do have to be customized for each town, and sometimes for each district, since there are different offices and numbers of candidates on the ballot]

As a consequence, Connecticut can’t get reliable results from some towns on election night, or even the next day. This drives the media nuts, of course, but more important, it’s a disservice to the public. Voters would like to see the official tally on who won and by how much. Is that too much to ask? [Once again the current system may delay results a few hours, but not even a day. I am sure most state troopers could get to Hartford in less than a couple hours]

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill shares our pain, agrees that the present system leaves much to be desired and believes she has a solution. She said her office has been developing a software program over the past 30 months that allows instantaneous reporting of election results — “just type in the numbers and hit send.” She said 40 towns field-tested the program in Tuesday’s election. It worked well in half of them and had some bugs that need to be worked out in the others. She hopes to have it in place in all towns by the 2014 elections. [We would like to see the Secretary and the Courant Editorial Board close a polling place, get the data in  via smart phone, or close absentee ballots and report via laptop. We will help time them and transparently get it up on YouTube]

Ms. Merrill’s office made more results available more quickly this year by scanning the paper forms that were faxed in and posting them on the website. Some of these were hand-written with cross-outs (see Waterford, for example), making them barely legible — more evidence that the present system is hopelessly antiquated.

Yes, Florida Does Voting Right

Ms. Merrill would do a great public service by proposing a law similar to Florida’s, requiring quick posting of at least preliminary election results. At present towns have until 6 p.m. the following day to get their results in, and many don’t make even that expansive deadline. The chance for error is magnified as numbers are transcribed once or twice, added up, faxed in and typed into the state system. The new software does the addition and requires only one input, reducing the chance for error.

Some election processes are hard to change; some local officials like things as they are. Ms. Merrill should push ahead and drag the state into at least the 20th century. [The Courant and Ms. Merrill should set reasonable expectations of the system and election officials, based on the results of tests, and then change the law, negotiating with election officials]

To understand more details, you can listen to the training and/or view a PowerPoint presentation on the Secretary of the State’s election reporting system at her web site: <view/listen>

UPDATE: 11/10/2013. A column and op-ed in the Courant today:

First, an op-ed by Karen Cortes, a conscientious(*)  registrar from Simsbury, Antiquated Systems Stall Election Results <read>

She mostly echoes our concerns, yet there are several areas where we diverge:

  • I do not agree that automation provides a total solution and that getting results immediately is desirable. No matter how well the collection system is automated, there is an need for checking and rechecking at the origin of hand count and write-in results in particular, time should be taken to make sure the check-in list counts match the total ballots counted. Electronic data entry checked well can save a few hours and some redundant work for the Secretary of the  State as well.
  • Electronic data transmission from our election machines is risky  and not a cure for errors. Connecticut wisely does not connect our machines to the Internet or phone system, to protect against viruses and attack.
  • Blindly submitting electronic results, bypasses the careful checking that the scanner was used properly and did not miss votes or double count them – that has happened in Connecticut, even over turning an election.
  • I would not hold out NJ as a good example. NJ uses DRE (touch screen) voting which in NJ are total uninhabitable and proven to miscount.
  • As for Virginia, this year they are a poster-state for blindly accepting machine results. The results from one county were blindly reported, were obviously incorrect, and may, if corrected, result in the change in a result. See <BradBlog> As for me, I will opt for taking the time for accurate date entry, and checking for reasonably accurate results in initial reports.

Also a column from Jon Lender, with views closer to our  own: Computerized Vote-Tally System Tested: Merrill Gives It C+, But Local Registrar Says It Flunked <read>

* CORRECTION: Good grief! An earlier version said ‘contentious’. We regret the error. At least we have proven the need for checking and rechecking.

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