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Advertise on the Tentacle

September 21, 2006

Going Boldly Where Others Floundered

Norman M. Covert

Our sophisticated neighbors to the south couldn't get it right during the primary election last week. We country bumpkins hitched up our "over-hauls" and got the new Diebold voting technology to work properly, thank you.

Apparently Montgomery County's Board of Elections did not deliver blank Voter Access Cards (VAC) until after the polls were supposed to be open. The reusable encoded cards activate and allow the individual voting units to accept a voter's ballot. The judiciary eventually extended the voting time by one hour. So what else is new down there?

Someone mused that our own Election Director Stuart Harvey once toiled in Montgomery County and now we know just how valuable he is to Frederick.

I was pleased to operate one of the Diebold Electronic Poll books as a check-in judge during the primary. My experience tells me much has been done to make voting easier, more efficient and more secure.

I can report that all the critical cards were on hand and voting in my precinct was virtually seamless. The new system replaced the huge voter registration books. Searchable data included statewide voter lists to help find voters who for one reason or another did not show up initially on the screens.

Our precinct received perhaps two complaints about the Electronic Voting Units. Voters were surprised at the efficiency of the Electronic Poll books.

One voter demanded to know if a paper facsimile of the ballot was being printed by the voting unit to "prevent voter fraud." He complained to anyone within earshot. We let the chief judges tell him that the units' provided a numerical printout.

Another let us know that the Voting Units' screens were set at such a high angle that he felt no privacy was afforded the voter. Again we let the chief judges handle it as we nodded and went back to our own business. (The units could be set at gradations from flat to vertical.)

We had about three voters whose party affiliation did not agree with what they answered to verify the data on the poll book screen. One shrugged and voted the party ballot indicated, the other two were allowed to complete a provisional ballot, as was their right. Those ballots will be verified and if found to be valid, counted.

Each precinct had four poll book operators (two representing each major political party) for two units, which are touch screen computer systems. They were linked by an Ethernet cable allowing them to run in tandem.

We were initially rattled when each of the poll books shut down from "fatal errors" that required us to reboot them. We noticed the voter totals didn't match after the first glitch occurred and we dealt with it by having the chief judge concur in closing the particular book, turning it off, waiting about 30 seconds, then rebooting and taking it back to the action mode. Within a few seconds the totals on the screen mounted up and matched the sister unit.

We noted that the glitches occurred most often during the process of encoding the Voter Access Cards, but all the cards worked properly. We opined that the units might be getting too warm, but the Diebold technician dismissed that notion providing no other possible reasoning for the glitches.

We stopped worrying and figured it was some mysterious computer message that occasionally went to the central processing unit's default inbox. We kept an eye on the units and when we lost the Ethernet link icon, we rebooted and kept going.

Despite the challenge, one unit was always working. We may have inconvenienced two voters for no longer than a couple minutes. No one complained.

The only other delay for voters was the requirement to fill out a blank Voter Authorization Card on which they printed their name, indicated their birth date and signed. A unit judge then verified on the card which numbered Voting Unit was used by the voter.

The delay may have amounted to about a minute for some voters. That would not have been necessary had we been issued the Electronic Pollbook's printer, which was available at several precincts. The county had received them, but did not have enough time to get all of them ready for the primary election. They will be available for the November General Election.

We loosely figured we could process a voter in about 20 seconds or less. We were required to ask each prospective voter his or her surname after which we used a stylus to tap letters on the screen arrayed like a keyboard. Some names popped up with two letters, a few required the complete spelling and we only briefly wrestled with names which had apostrophes or hyphens.

Interestingly one of our first prospective voters had a name which we entered without the apostrophe and the name failed to appear as valid for our precinct. After some discussion at the other precinct sharing our location, he returned and we entered the name with the apostrophe. Almost immediately we were able to encode his Voter Access Card. His spouse came about mid-afternoon and she chided us about the momentary snafu that morning.

Verifying registered voters was easy. When a voter's information appeared on the screen (within a couple seconds), we asked for verification of the address and birth month and day, then party affiliation.

We could only ask for identification if the computer required it. Our unit flagged only one voter, who proved his identity and voted. Usually that occurred because the voter had been inactive in recent elections.

Once we verified the prospective voter's information, we tapped an icon on the screen, inserted a blank Voter Access Card and it was encoded within three seconds. Next time the printer will simultaneously print the Voter Authority Card for the voter to sign and provide to the unit judge.

It probably took a bit longer for the chief judges to print out results from each Voting Unit because it was the first time with the new Diebold software. Each unit was carefully shut down and printouts produced for display at the precinct and to be forwarded to the Election Board counters at Winchester Hall.

The voting units themselves prevented anyone from being privy to cumulative ballot totals throughout the long day. Counters were sealed internally. Two identical opening printouts were produced prior to opening the polls to ensure they were at zero.

Part of the closedown procedure was that all numbers had to match between the poll books (ballots cast) and the voting units (Voter Access Cards issued) - they did. We then closed up the units and poll books and sealed them.

I don't believe any of us on the precinct team of judges could have changed the vote or interfered. We could have messed it up, I suppose, but all the judges took their jobs seriously. Every voter was given personal service to be able to cast their ballots on the units and avoid any trepidation facing the new technology.

See you in November.

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