Despite some opening-night hiccups, the Secretary of the State’s office is hoping municipal election officials will embrace an instantaneous, public, digital returns reporting system in time for November.
The new program, which is intended to replace a laborious and outdated system of paperwork and faxes, is entirely web-based and would allow for immediate public access to real-time election results. The Secretary of the State’s office did a trial run of the new system on primary night with a handful of towns including Wilton, New Britain, Manchester, Stamford, Simsbury, and Danbury.
The new system allows moderators at individual polling locations — or anywhere with Internet access — to log in and post results as soon as they have them. Townwide moderators will have more administrative privileges within the system, but it is designed to make results available to the public as soon as individual moderators post them, according to Av Harris, spokesman for the Secretary of the State Denise Merrill.
Staffers at the SOTS’s office remained optimistic Tuesday night that the change can be implemented statewide. That said, on Wednesday Merrill said many registrars still faxed results to her office on Tuesday, adding, “We still have people hand deliver them.”
As of Thursday, she still hadn’t heard any feedback on the new system from the communities that took part in the test, but she expected to talk to local officials soon.
“I don’t have any hope of convincing all the registrars, but quick results mean more public confidence in our election system,” Merrill said. “And the way we wrote the program means there will be fewer errors.”
Merrill said the statute allows registrars to deliver results by 6 p.m. the following day, but despite the relative autonomy of each municipal registrar of voters, she added that the statute says the Secretary of the State can decide how results are delivered.
“All I can do is keep hammering on it,” Merrill said. “At some point, we’ll unplug the fax machines and call the question. At least that might get them to use email.”
Merrill added that communication is key.
“We really do a lot of outreach,” Merrill said. “Over time I think it will happen. We’ll have to be patient.”
The last time the state upgraded its voting technology, however, it took about two years to get it right. Those first tests of the current optical scan machines came in 2006, but the equipment was not fully utilized until 2008. This changeover may prove to be just as daunting. The hope is that more towns will switch or at least try out the new system this fall.
Training and support are likely to be headaches, if only based on the sheer number of people who need to be trained, according to Harris. Between all the municipal registrars and poll workers throughout the state, Harris estimated that they may need to train more than 1,000 people on how to enter data into the system.
In terms of new costs to the town, there would need to be a laptop, smartphone, or some kind of computer with Internet access at each polling location for the system to work as efficiently as it’s been advertised.
Officials in Manchester said funding is scarce for anything related to elections, and Merrill said that’s the case around the state as most towns spend less than 1 percent of their budgets on elections. So computer purchases would be a tall order. It’s worth noting here that most towns already own dozens — if not hundreds — of computers and/or laptops, many of which are sitting unused down the hall from polling locations on election days.
“It’s a challenge,” Harris said, suggesting that it’s not always easy to get town officials to help each other out. But the goal is to “show election administrators how much easier their lives would be” with the new system.
“Getting there is going to be hard,” said Merrill’s Chief of Staff Shannon Wegele, “but it’s going to be so worth it.”
Transparency, in addition to speed, is one of the goals of the new program. “A system like this promotes a different kind of public scrutiny,” says Matt Waggner, Democratic Registrar of Voters for Fairfield. “What this new system makes possible is for someone like you or a candidate to download results at intervals of your choosing, and identify changes and discrepancies. That could put a spotlight on problems that would never have come to light before.”
The first results started coming in about 20 minutes after the polls closed. Stamford had their complete results posted early, but other towns lagged. A few of the results appeared before the news media had reported them. Still, as often is the case, numbers from a few of the towns supposedly participating in the trial were posted on news websites and Twitter before they appeared on the Secretary of the State’s site.
The delay is intended to be much less in the future. When municipal elections return next year, the system can fill in some of the growing gaps left by vanishing local news organizations.
“It’s all about pushing something out there to create something new,” Wegele said.
In Manchester, “something new” meant a shared headache for several election officials, although at least one poll moderator said the technology was long overdue.
Despite a webinar with pilot towns and the presence of an IT support technician on site, questions and concerns arose fairly quickly at Manchester’s Robert Weiss Center after the polls closed and district moderators began to arrive shortly after 8:30 p.m.
They were asked to provide data to Democratic Assistant Registrar Mary Moynihan, who was ready to enter information on a desktop computer assisted by Sarika Sharma, a business analyst for PCC.
District 8 Moderator Seth D. Johnson was first through the door. Minutes passed as he read information aloud for Moynihan, and election officials quickly noted that it was taking too long to enter all the data required by the PCC system. Instead of entering only numbers next to pre-entered names on the ballot, the system also required Moynihan to enter the names of all the poll workers.
As tired moderators and poll workers began to arrive, the sense of urgency about the pace of data entry grew. By 8:50 p.m. a second computer was booted up for Republican Assistant Registrar Mary Ann Caldwell to join the effort and speed up the process.
“Why do they need all those names?” Chief Moderator Jonathan Mercier asked as poll workers names were entered. In a discussion later, Mercier said that if there were ever a discrepancy in the town’s numbers, the town — rather than the state — would be responsible for investigating the problem. “They don’t need those names,” he said.
Informed of that objection after the fact on Thursday, Merrill quickly agreed. “I would think that’s probably excess data,” she said, adding that there’s no need to create a giant state database of poll workers’ names. She said she just wants to provide accurate results to the public faster.
In addition, by conducting the system test at one location, Manchester appears to have inadvertently created a data bottleneck. Rather than having individual moderators entering data at each poll, everyone was waiting their turn at the Robert Weiss Center. And then, after entering their data digitally, they went ahead and duplicated the effort. As they had in years past, they sat down with Registrars Tim Becker and Frank Maffe Jr. and Mercier, the chief moderator, and read the numbers as they wrote them down.
Both Merrill and Becker said there’s usually some duplication of effort when adopting a new system.
“We’ve got to start somewhere,” Becker said late Tuesday after they’d completed their work at 10:10 p.m. “It’s a system that eventually is going to go electronic and paperless, but obviously it may need some refinements.”
Becker reiterated that a lot of information could have been entered ahead of time so that only the vote totals would have been needed during the crunchtime period after the polls closed. But both Becker and District 2 Moderator Collins Johnston said that each poll is open 14 hours and the moderator is responsible for keeping track of about 8 to 10 workers during the course of the day, as well as making sure the polls stay open and rules are followed.
“In theory, if we had laptops at each polling place, information could have been entered and maybe it would have been different,” Becker said. “All I’m saying is that in a busy election like the one we’ve got coming up, there’s really no time to be on a laptop.”
Becker said he was happy with the feedback about the system and suggested that it’s frustrating for people when they have to add time to a day that started at 5 a.m.
“In some ways I feel bad for the registrars,” Merrill said. “It’s very difficult to change anything. But there are a lot of newer registrars who are surprised that there isn’t more technology available. Some are shocked by level of antiquity in the system . . . We’re trying to move it. We’re going to do training. We do have registrars who are quite excited about it.”
Merrill said one registrar asked on Tuesday whether her office was simply trying to be The Associated Press, which traditionally has hired hundreds of stringers to collect results on election night. But last year The AP opted not to do the same for the municipal election and left many smaller news organizations digging for results and evidence of a trend. Typically the state relies heavily on the Democratic Party, which mobilizes a lot of members to collect results on election night as well.
“He said, ‘Why do you need numbers so fast?’” Merrill recounted of her conversation with the registrar, whom she didn’t name. “Well the public media isn’t what it used to be. We are the public source. We should be the source for the numbers, the accurate information that people need.”