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Ada County, Idaho, to Ditch Antiquated Voting Technology

The county has embarked on a two-year plan to get an election system in place by the 2016 presidential election with the goal of having results released before midnight.

by Cynthia Sewell, The Idaho Statesman / February 19, 2015

(TNS) -- Like most political aficionados, Paul Woods looks forward to the excitement of the polls closing and the results pouring in each Election Day. For the past several years, though, Ada County's results have not poured in.

They've trickled.

Woods had to wait 11 hours after Ada County's polls closed in the November 2014 election to find out whether he won his race to become an Ada County Highway District commissioner. (He did.)

"I stayed up until 2:30 in the morning and they still were not in," Woods lamented. "I got up at 6 and checked and they were almost done."

Other Idaho counties had tallied ballots and sent election workers home to bed hours before Ada County posted final election results at 7 a.m. In 2012, ballot counting didn't wrap up until 8 a.m.

Candidates, voters and reporters all are tired of the glacial experience of Ada County election results.

Ada County finally is too.

The county has embarked on a two-year plan to get an election system in place by the 2016 presidential election with the goal of having results released before midnight.

"That is absolutely fantastic," Woods said.

WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?

Remember Zip disks and Zip drives? That once-cutting-edge computer storage technology fell out of favor around the turn of century. But that bygone technology is still at the heart of Ada County's election system - and at least part of the reason results take so long.

The disks had a high failure rate, are no longer made and are hard to find. When the county heard the Boise School District was jettisoning its Zip disks, the county snatched them up. It also scours eBay and Craigslist for Zip drives.

The county system relies on Zip technology to tally and track vote tabulation.

"On election night, after we put data on the Zip disk, we have someone go in and verify the data actually did get onto the disk because at times that doesn't happen," said Ada County Deputy Clerk Phil McGrane said.

Also problematic: the county's seven temperamental counting machines. Having all seven working at the same time is as rare as those Zip disks and dot-matrix printers the county elections department uses.

Write-in, blank or poorly marked ballots send the machines into conniptions.

"We never run an election where all machines have worked throughout the duration of election night," McGrane said. "A machine will stop taking ballots or just quit working."

The counting machines aren't that old -- the county bought them in 2007 for $65,000 each. But it doesn't take long for new technology to become obsolete.

The county is concerned about the risk its outdated ballot-counting system poses. So far, albeit slow, cranky and unreliable, it's been accurate, McGrane said. A 2010 recount found just one uncounted ballot. The county has not had a major Election Day debacle, but each year that the county gets further behind the technology curve, it gets more in the path of a major calamity.

Ada County is ready to ditch its "very antiquated technology," McGrane said.

The county also needs to change where and how it counts ballots.

Ada County uses a central counting system. When the polls close on Election Day at 8 p.m., workers from nearly 140 polling places bring the ballots to the county's office to be counted. Ballots arrive about the same time, and then sit waiting to be fed into the counting machines.

Ada County is one of the largest offices in the country still doing it that way.

"When you bring that many ballots into a central location to count them it takes time," said Chief Deputy Secretary of State Tim Hurst.

Hurst, too, is looking forward to an Ada County upgrade -- he can't go home until every ballot is reported.

"I sit here until they are all in from around the state and sometimes it has been 2 o'clock the next afternoon," he said.

SO WHAT ARE THE SOLUTIONS?

1. NEW SYSTEM, NEW PEOPLE

The first step in its new election system is to create a new position and hire an elections division director to map out and lead the effort. The county has posted the position, which pays $65,000 to $75,000 annually.

Next, the county needs to go out for bids on the actual system, which is estimated to cost between $3 million and $4 million. In Idaho, only two companies are certified to provide election systems, so the county already knows what it's looking at. Once the contract is complete, the equipment is to be installed, tested and ready for action in the 2016 general election.

2. PRECINCT-LEVEL COUNTING

The change to consolidated elections in 2011 means more two-page ballots. If 20,000 people vote, the county has to count 40,000 ballots, which contributes to the long time it takes to count ballots.

Ada County wants each precinct to do its own counting. With the right technology, every ballot cast at the polling place is scanned and counted when the voter places it into the ballot box. When the polls close, a poll worker takes a computer memory card -- with a tally of the day's votes -- to the elections office, where it's uploaded to a computer.

Each polling place would have its own ballot-counting machine so ballots can be counted when cast, which is less time-consuming than counting all ballots in one location.

"Franklin and Caribou counties just bought that type of system. They like it," said Hurst.

3. ELECTRONIC POLL BOOKS

Paper ballots will not go away. They are the most secure way to conduct an election and are required under Idaho law. Ada County wants to replace its giant, unwieldy poll books with electronic "books" loaded onto a laptop or tablet. Poll workers would be able to look up information on all voters, not just those in the one precinct -- which would help identify if and where a voter is registered, and whether voters may already have voted absentee or early. Hurst plans to introduce legislation this session to clarify state law to allow electronic poll books.

EARLY VOTING: CONVENIENT, SAFE AND POPULAR

To avoid election lines or for convenience, more Idahoans are opting to vote early or by mail. To accommodate the demand, Ada County started offering Saturday voting in 2012. The expanded voting option proved popular, so the county wants to extend its early voting hours in November -- currently hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays at the county elections office on Benjamin Street -- and add more early voting locations around the county.

"We want to expand into the cities and make voting more accessible," McGrane said.

As voter participation declines -- in the 1980 presidential election, 69 percent of Idaho's voting-age population cast a vote, but by the 2012 presidential election that number had dropped to 58 percent -- providing more convenient times and locations might help turn out more voters and also help reduce long lines, counting delays and polling place logistics on Election Day, McGrane said. Last year, the county had to set up and staff nearly 140 polling places on Election Day.

One recent development has made early voting safer and more convenient, enabling the county to start offering it in multiple locations.

Congressional, legislative, city, school and other voting district boundaries create myriad ballot configurations, depending on where a voter lives. "In the last primary, we had 535 ballot unique ballot styles. We can't have 535 different pads lined up and expect accuracy in getting everyone the right ballot," McGrane said.

In 2012 Ada County started printing ballots on demand for early and absentee voting.

With on-demand ballots, the voter's name is entered into a computer, which selects the correct ballot and prints it. This method is more secure because it ensures the voter gets the correct ballot and it enables the county to offer early voting in other locations, even outdoor kiosks, without having to lug around stacks of various types of blank ballots.

It would be too costly and too slow to print ballots on-demand on Election Day at each polling place, McGrane said, but the county plans to offer early voting at multiple locations using on-demand ballots, which means voters could go to any location and get their respective ballot.

Ada County was the first Idaho county to offer on-demand ballots; it has made the software it developed available to other counties.

©2015 The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho)

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