An electronic poll book

When Connecticut voters go to the polls this year they will use a voting system that is secure, accurate — and old. It’s a problem that should be high on the agenda of state officials and the newly elected legislature which convenes in January.

Connecticut’s current voting system, adopted in 2006, is built around paper ballots and optical scanning tabulators which read and count the ballots. State officials selected it over touchscreen-based systems because it combined electronic processing with written ballots that could be used in the event of a recount. That was the correct decision. The system has generally worked well, but the equipment is approaching obsolescence.

The tabulators used in Connecticut haven’t been manufactured since 2007, not long after the state bought them. Spare parts are no longer commercially available, and some communities have begun to cannibalize machines for replacement parts. That is a recipe for disaster. Replacing those machines will take time, planning and money. The time to start that process is now.

But Connecticut needs to go further than just replacing the current equipment. Entering the third decade of the 21st century our elections are still largely pen and paper affairs. State officials should use the opportunity to examine ways to improve the entire voting process and explore opportunities to use technology to securely modernize the way Connecticut votes.

For example, every year there are complaints about how long is takes to tally and report the results of the election. In large cities that process often lasts past midnight. That’s because the current system is labor intensive and makes limited use of technology.

Yes, the paper ballots are scanned, recorded, and tallied electronically in the polling place. But that is only the beginning of the process. After the polls close, a printout is generated by each tabulator which records the number of votes each candidate received. The tapes and totals are then transported back to a central location (usually a city or town hall) where the votes cast for each candidate at each polling place must be transferred to an on-line data base operated by the Secretary of the State’s office. That can amount to hundreds of data points (generally numbers) that must be entered manually. Entering that information takes time.

But wait. Back at the start of the process the votes were recorded and tallied on an electronic memory card. Since the information was originally recorded in electronic format, why can’t it be electronically transferred to the Secretary of State’s reporting system with a minimum number of intervening steps. That would save time, make information available more quickly and prevent errors, such as transposed numbers.

That’s just one example of how technology might improve the voting process. Electronic poll books are another.

The first election official most voters interact with is the official checkers. They check to make sure the individual is registered to vote and hasn’t already voted. If there are no issues, they cross off the voter’s name and they proceed to vote. If not, they attempt to resolve the issue.

In most communities the only information available officials in the polling place are paper lists of voters prepared by the registrars of voters. That means that one or more calls between the polling place and the registrar of voters’ office are required in order the resolve any questions.

Many other states have resolved that problem, among others, by replacing the paper voter lists with electronic poll books.

In their most basic form, electronic poll books are simply tablets with an electronic version of the voter lists. Depending on the choices which the state makes they can also:

  • Update voter histories either in real time or at the end of the day.
  • Check whether the voter has voted by absentee or in another polling place or community;
  • Make it easier for poll workers to redirect a voter who goes to the wrong polling place;
  • Facilitate the processing of counting of absentee ballots and election day registrations.

Those are just a few ways technology might be used to improve our election system. I’m sure that experts in elections and technology can identify others. The final decision about what improvements to adopt should be based on three factors; the technology: the cost, and benefits of any change and, importantly security issues.

Across the country states facing similar questions have come to different conclusions. For example, according to 2019 study by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) electronic poll books in Maryland and Indiana are networked to a central database and receive immediate updates from other polling places. But other states, like Minnesota and Michigan, prohibit electronic poll books from being connected to a network.

Obviously, choices won’t be simple, quick, or easy, but one thing is clear. It’s time Connecticut to start making them.

Philip L. Smith is a retired Under Secretary of the state Office of Policy and Management. He lives in Bridgeport where he has been a Head Moderator for elections over more than 30 years.

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