Articles

Norwalk, Conn., Uses Technology to Better Run Elections

The city's registrars of voters have, for the past six years, been improving and streamlining best practices by adding and implementing various simple and easily-affordable technologically-based programs.

by Robert J. Sodaro and Stuart W. Wells III / December 29, 2015

Registrars of voters have essentially two sets of responsibility -- first is to the voters themselves to register voters and run elections, and second is to the municipality itself to do the first part of the job as cost-effectively as possible. And perhaps the best way to go about doing both parts of the job is through effective use of technology.

For the past six years in Norwalk, Conn. — the 6th largest municipality in the state, with some 87,000 citizens and around 44,000 voters — we have been improving and streamlining our best practices by adding and implementing various simple and easily-affordable technologically-based programs. Working in conjunction with the city’s IT department and the Board of Education's cooperation (polling places are primarily in the schools — all of which already were wired for Internet when we started as the city's registrars of voters), we have striven to better leverage technology in the voting process.

Beginning in 2009, our office began actively implementing a number of technology upgrades that would help not only reduce costs, but also help increase productivity. Connecticut state statutes require that municipalities have two phone lines, one for voice and one for fax, in each polling location. Norwalk has 13 polling places, so the current solution — paying $150 to install each line, $30 for the month to keep each line open and $50 to remove each line at the conclusion of each election cycle (which is cheaper than keeping the phone lines active all year long) — was proving to be rather expensive.

So in 2009, we replaced one phone line in each polling place with an Analog Telephone Adapter device to convert the phone’s analog signal into a digital signal for transmission over the Internet. We then distributed laptops, which were initially borrowed from the IT department and the Board of Education, to each location, and each laptop was equipped with Skype to allow for chat, voice and/or video communication so that polling places could communicate with City Hall. Poll workers and office staff were then trained to use Skype, which was fairly simple as many already were already familiar with the program.

Now that computers were connected to the Internet in each polling location, we scrapped printing city-wide look-up polling books -- books that the Assistant Registers used to help identify inactive voters and/or redirect misdirected voters to their proper polling place. So instead of printing and distributing more than 10,000 pages, we put the city’s entire voter list online so that poll workers could easily look up any voter in the city to determine their voting status. The city’s IT department created a computerized search engine that allowed us to find a voter’s record by typing only a portion of a person’s name or part of a hyphenated name. This also gave us the option of looking the voters up by address or birth date.

We also cleaned up our voter list during a re-districting process by using both GPS and Google Maps in conjunction with the city’s property list, tax rolls and USPS delivery routes. We verified the location of each voter in the city and in the process managed to locate some 400 or so residential addresses that had inadvertently been assigned to the wrong voting districts for the past 30 or 40 years.

In the years since we started utilizing technology, we have gone on to purchase our own laptops so we no longer have to rely on borrowing them from other departments, and are now experimenting with electronic check-in. We also worked with our IT department to adapt our voter look-up system to work with mobile devices and as of 2014, have made the link available to not only our own poll workers but, because the data is non-proprietary, public information, we also made it available to campaign and party workers so they can also help voters correctly identify their eligibility to vote and their respective polling places. In 2014, Connecticut implemented online registration so that eligible citizens with access to the Internet can now register to vote without having to visit City Hall.

Training poll workers is another important aspect of our job, so we built a PowerPoint presentation that we use to train poll workers here in Norwalk. This presentation also was used as a template to design additional presentations and other training materials used around the state to form the basis for training moderators -- the chief polling officers required at each polling place. We used the presentation as a starting point, and then helped develop a training manual that was adopted by the Secretary of the State’s office for moderator training classes.

These and other technologically-based best practices have helped reduce costs and streamline voting operations here in Norwalk and across the state. 

Stuart W. Wells III is the Democratic Registrar of Voters in Norwalk. Robert J. Sodaro is Mr. Wells' Deputy as well as a professional writer with more than 30 years of publishing experience.