I. In Focus This Week
Problems and questions face D.C. following primary
Late results because of technical problems have people talking
The complaining on social media began almost as soon as the polls in Washington, D.C. closed at 8 p.m. on the April 1 primary. Where were the first results? Why haven’t we heard anything?
While certainly the 8 p.m. naysayers could be dismissed for their short attention spans and need for instant gratification, when 9 p.m. came and went with no results, not even those from early voting, even calmer heads started to wonder: Again? Why are there no results?
Whoever was running the D.C. Board of Elections’ Twitter page was doing their best to keep people informed, but by 9:30 the Twitterati and local media were having none of it.
Finally at 9:55 p.m. the first results began to trickle in, but there were discrepancies in the numbers between what reporters were given and what was appearing on the DCBOE’s website.
“It’s ridiculous that we have to wait that long,” Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who chairs the committee that oversees DCBOE told The Washington Post. “
In an April 3 letter to DCBOE Director Cliff Tatum and Board Chair Deborah Nichols, McDuffie expressed concern about the ongoing problems at the DCBOE, no matter the turnout
“In the District, residents and candidates have a right to expect orderly and timely election results,” McDuffie wrote. “Seemingly, no matter what level of voter turnout there is in an election, the Board continues to experience some type of difficulty in tabulating the results.”
McDuffie has called an April 29th round table so officials from the BOE can explain the situation and answer questions.
So what actually happened in a single-entity jurisdiction that doesn’t have to deal with the quagmire of local, county and state reporting, and is there a way to prevent it from happening again? [Editor’s Note: Representatives from the D.C. Board of Elections did not respond to electionline’s inquiries so comments from BOE officials are from local media outlets]
First, according to published reports, DCBOE did not begin counting early votes until the polls closed at 8 p.m. on election day instead of earlier in the day. Those familiar with procedures at DCBOE said the Board is permitted to count early votes during election day and it was done in past elections.
While this would not have solved all the problems, it would have provided candidates, the media and the public something to chew on while DCBOE was collecting and tabulating election-day results. It is unclear why the Board chose to wait until 8 p.m. to count those ballots.
Secondly, there were issues shutting down DRE machines at several precinct locations. D.C. is one of a handful of jurisdictions that allows voters to choose between casting their ballot on paper or via iVotronic DRE machines.
On election day approximately 43,000 voters chose paper and 29,000 chose electronic.
While in past elections there was one DRE machine per polling site, the city added more than 150 additional DRE machines citywide.
"Just by the numbers of the machines that we had out there, and the fact that our poll workers were for the first time, some of them, closing two IVOs [electronic voting machine] and three IVOs as opposed to the one IVO, it took a little longer than what we're used to," Tatum told WAMU.
In D.C. there are not just two different voting systems but multiple electronic systems. Poll workers had to go through a complex-sounding process to transfer the results from one DRE to the other so that all the votes in the precinct were reported together.
“When you have two systems, you have more shutting down and more reconciling to do. You have more checks to do and more checklists to check,” said Dana Chisnell with the Center for Civic Design. “You also have to reconcile *between* the systems, so it wouldn't be surprising to me if there was confusion around that.”
For their research, Chisnell and Whitney Quesenbery have observed poll workers shutting down polling places and completing the reporting process. Quesenbery noted that good procedures make a big difference.
“In the best places, the reconciliation process not only recorded the information from the voting system but helped poll workers catch and correct mistakes before they even left the polling place, while the whole team was there to figure out the problem,” she said.
Quesenbery said that from the media reports she has read it also sounds like the reporting system at the DCOBE wasn’t set up to notice that the results didn’t add up.
“Where, for example, is the check of total votes cast against the number of signing in at the polling place?” Quesenbery pondered. “Election night is always chaotic. How do we design systems and procedures that take this into account so that checks and double-checks are built into the process?”
Of course there are benefits to having the dual system. Pam Smith with Verified Voting noted having a dual system like D.C. does means that there is always a back-up available should there be problems during the day.
However, on election night and in the days that followed, it wasn’t just the late results that had people concerned, it was the conflicting reports from elections officials about what happened and when.
According to published reports, on Tuesday night Tatum blamed the problem on poll workers not being trained well enough, while on Wednesday a spokeswoman for the Board told The Washington Post that even though there were additional volunteers at each precinct, they were simply overwhelmed.
“Training does matter. But I wish this explanation didn't sound so much like blaming the poll workers,” Quesenbery said. “If you are introducing new procedures, you have to be sure everyone working the election is ready for them.”
Smith said that it’s also important to manage expectations as well because there will be problems.
“This is where transparency comes in and is really important,” Smith said. “We really encourage people to open up the process to observation as much as possible because it’s helpful for transparency. The more people understand about the system and how it works, the more transparent it is.”
Quesenbery said that ultimately it sounds like a key culprit of D.C.’s problems Tuesday night is a system for collecting and reporting results that didn't serve the election officials, or the public, very well.
“At least they caught the problem on election night and could send election workers out to the precincts to collect the votes,” Quesenbery said. “What if the discrepancy had been smaller?”
- Next >>