I. In Focus This Week
Maine towns continue to count ballots by hand
State offer of free vote-counting equipment rejected by some
When you think of Maine you think of lobsters and blueberries and quaint, picturesque towns.
For years, ballot clerks in hundreds of these small towns have spent election night painstakingly hand-counting ballots. Depending on the size of the town and the size of the election, this process could last well into the morning hours.
In early 2012, there were approximately 500 towns throughout Maine still hand-counting ballots.
The Secretary of State’s Office, in an effort to speed up the process and get results to Augusta more quickly, offered the towns with more than 1,100 registered voters access to 225 vote tabulators (ES&S DS 200) free of charge under the state’s contract with the vendor.
“We are providing 225 tabulators free of charge,” explained Julie Flynn, deputy secretary of state. “The majority of the municipalities with more than 1,100 registered voters accepted the tabulators.”
Only Greenville, Litchfield and Winterport declined two offers from the state and continue to count their ballots by hand.
According to Flynn, there is nothing in state law mandating that the towns use vote tabulators.
When provided the opportunity for a free vote-counting machine in Greenville, Town Manager Gary Lamb was excited about the prospect.
He noted that having the machine count the ballots would eliminate human error and just as importantly, would speed up the process, especially for town employees who already had a long day.
“I had accepted the blasted thing and then got a call from Julie [Flynn, deputy secretary of state] saying that the board of selectmen had to sign off on it," Lamb said. “I didn’t expect there to be any problems.”
But there were and by a 3-2 vote the board of selectmen chose to stick with the hand-counting tradition.
“I was shocked really, but I’ve only been here a couple of years,” Lamb said. “And I was disappointed too because it was a great offer.”
According to Clerk Roxanne Lizotte there are 1600 registered voters in Greenville and it can take anywhere from four to five hours to hand-count the ballots depending on the election.
“Cindy [Registrar of Voters Cynthia Hanscom] and myself, are disappointed the selectmen chose this way,” Lizotte said. “But, we work for them.”
Flynn said she heard a variety of reasons for why towns didn’t want to accept the vote tabulators.
“It was all over the place,” Flynn said.
She noted that in some towns, members of the board of selectmen — who made the final decisions about whether or not to accept the tabulators — work as ballot clerks on election night and therefore would lose the additional pay. In others it was the questions about reliability.
In Litchfield, Ryana Leibowitz, chairwoman of the board of selectmen told the local paper that one of the reasons for rejecting the machines was the loss of the social aspect of hand-counting ballots.
But Litchfield Clerk Doris Parlin, who supported accepting the vote tabulators wasn’t so sure about how social it really is.
“They [ballot clerks] come in about 10 minutes before the counting starts and once it’s started, there really isn’t much talking because everyone is counting.”
Parlin presented her board of selectmen with a list of pros and cons for accepting the machines. Among the pros she listed were saving time and money and accuracy. She couldn’t really recall, what, if anything, she put down on the cons list.
Parlin said she’s gotten a bit of feedback from Litchfield voters. Some, she said, thought the town was foolish to turn down the machines.
Neither Parlin nor Lamb anticipate the selectmen in their respective towns to change their minds any time soon and move to vote tabulators.
And even if they did, unfortunately for Litchfield, Greenville and Winterport, the state has allotted the remaining machines to smaller towns that wanted them.
For the smaller that towns that were not offered the free vote-tabulators, the state did allow those towns to piggyback on their contract with the vendor so they could get a lease rate the same as the states. Flynn said several of the towns took advantage of that offer.
One interesting wrinkle in all of this is proposed legislation that would mandate instant-runoff voting statewide races.
“That would make it really, really difficult to hand-count those votes on paper,” Flynn said.
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