April 5, 2012 By Noelle Knell
In Cerro Gordo County, Iowa, election officials struggled with a common problem — ensuring the integrity and efficiency of the Election Day process. Adding to the complexity of their challenge is a state law that lets voters register the day of an election.
Iowa isn’t the only one dealing with this issue. Several states and the District of Columbia also allow Election Day registration, which is lauded by advocates as an important step toward expanding participation in the political process. But these rules have significant ramifications at the precinct level.
Precinct workers must process the necessary paperwork onsite to ensure that same-day registrants, as well as constituents casting provisional ballots and pre-registered voters, are all accounted for accurately.
During the 2008 presidential election, Cerro Gordo County Auditor Ken Kline spent time in a precinct, observing staff using tools to administer elections — tools that were distributed throughout Iowa. Despite the fact that Kline helped develop and train staff on using these tools, he chose to explore a better solution.
“I remembered thinking that it simply wasn’t fair to expect reasonable, intelligent people to remember all the rules, all the exceptions and apply them correctly to every voter who walked in to a polling place on Election Day,” Kline said.
Officials decided that several electronic poll books on the market were inadequate, offering little to simplify the voter check-in process. Kline explained that the options they considered were simply computerized versions of traditional hard-copy poll books. Cerro Gordo County envisioned a more sophisticated system that would offer much more functionality.
So the county took on the work itself, building a precinct election management system that’s now used by more than 50 Iowa counties. Constructed by internal IT staff to conform to Iowa election laws, the Precinct Atlas system uses a simple electronic process to incrementally guide precinct staff through appropriate procedures for each voter casting a ballot.
The Precinct Atlas, Kline explained, removes the guesswork and ensures that each voter is processed according to applicable election laws. In short, it’s much more than an electronic poll book. “When people call this program an electronic poll book program, I don’t mean to take offense,” Kline said, “but it’s like calling a Jaguar a horse and carriage.”
Jasper County Auditor Dennis Parrott offered a wholehearted endorsement of the Precinct Atlas. “The program simplifies the process as well as protects the process, so it’s really solved a lot of issues here,” Parrott said. “It has been overwhelmingly accepted in Iowa by the users and the election commissioners.”
The Precinct Atlas also has won several accolades, including the 2010 Excellence in Action Award from the Iowa State Association of Counties and the 2011 “Best of Category” Achievement Award from the National Association of Counties.
The election management system is available statewide, but counties must purchase their own hardware. Precinct Atlas uses a laptop and printer setup at each site that accesses a locally stored, precinct-specific voter database.
This kind of bottom-up system — featuring stand-alone databases at the precinct level — is admittedly more complex to deploy than a centrally administered database. But it provides valuable protections in the event of compromised connectivity or a power outage. If a precinct goes dark, officials can continue to process voters using Precinct Atlas via battery-powered laptops.
Although the system has been used in some capacity since 2009, a new password-protected Web portal is offering something election officials never had: a real-time view into voter activity during an election. This information can be made available to political parties, which closely monitor Election Day activity at the precinct level via a paper checklist. The website was used on Tuesday, April 3, for a special election in Sac and Buena Vista counties, as well as for the presidential primary election on June 5.
Kline explained that voter checklists, obtained in advance from the secretary of state’s office, usually don’t reflect the flurry of registration activity that occurs in the weeks before an election.
Perhaps more important, the real-time view allows more visibility into elections, alerting officials to potential irregularities and helping to ensure the integrity of the voting process.
“We have demonstrated the program to legislators, the lieutenant governor, the governor, the state political parties and other folks,” Kline said. “What they like about the program is they can see that voters are treated not only efficiently, but correctly and consistently.”
Soon, Kline expects a bill from the Iowa Legislature to establish clear legal and policy guidelines for the system and access to the real-time voter data.
Cerro Gordo County continues to seek ways to enhance the functionality of its election management system. Bar-code scanners of drivers’ licenses or voter cards are now saving even more time by reducing paperwork at county precincts. Several other Iowa counties utilized the scanners in recent special elections, reporting that more than 80 percent of voters took advantage of the option. More than 1,000 scanners have been purchased to date for use in Iowa precincts.
And in an effort to further streamline and ensure the accuracy of voter rolls, the county is exploring sharing voter records with the Iowa Department of Transportation, keeper of the state’s motor vehicle database.
Election officials in Iowa are also piloting two-way communication between individual precincts and county election headquarters. Data on voters casting ballots is sent to the central elections database every three minutes. The updated central database is then kicked back out to all precincts on the same near-continuous timetable.
While officials aren’t aware of any attempts to vote more than once in Iowa, this safeguard introduces another layer of protection to the voting process. “The more we can engender trust in the system,” Kline said, “the likelier voters are to participate.”
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