E-Voting Raises Reliability Concerns in Town Meetings

Uncounted votes and technical difficulties have leaders in Plymouth, Mass., reconsidering the use of electronic voting equipment. At least one vote was not recorded during a recent meeting, forcing a recount.

by David Kindy, Wicked Local South/Mariner / April 16, 2019

(TNS) — When is a tie vote not a tie vote? When it involves electronic voting at Town Meeting.

On Saturday, Town Meeting members were deciding on Article 7A sub-section D to reinstate $55,000 for spring cleanup when a rare tie vote occurred, 58-58. Time seemed to stand still as everyone in the Plymouth North High School performing arts center stared in disbelief and tried to comprehend what had just happened.

Suddenly, the silence was broken when one member spoke up and told Town Moderator F. Steven Triffletti that his vote in favor of the article had not been recorded by the electronic voting equipment provided by Option Technologies Interactive. The tally was changed and the article passed, but now other members were upset because the system had failed once again, and there was no confidence in the vote's accuracy. The system has failed in the past, causing a significant impact.

A second vote was taken and this time the article was approved 60-57. This scenario illustrated the concern about the reliability of the electronic voting program and the continuing struggle to have it work in a timely and correct fashion.

"We're frustrated," said Town Manager Melissa Arrighi. "It's a continuous problem."

Town Meeting on Saturday was marred by problems with the equipment. Several times during the morning session, there was difficulty in getting the voting software to display on the big screen in front of the auditorium. At the beginning of voting, a green light beams from the stage and a 20-second countdown is shown on the screen. That only happened in unison sporadically.

"We've been doing the voting at Town Meeting for five or six years with success," said Mark Fite, president of Option Technologies Interactive, a Florida vendor that handles voting requirements for numerous municipalities and companies. "There was a system software incompatibility with the public access television system that caused the problem. Once we disabled the program, everything ran smoothly."

It is believed that a screen saver installed by PACTV, which was broadcasting Town Meeting on local cable television, on one of the computers caused the problem. This same situation had been an issue in the past, Arrighi said.

"We've had this problem before," she noted. "We are going to have to take a more active role in ensuring it doesn't happen again."

The problem seemed to be fixed in the afternoon. Things ran smoothly for the most part until near the end when the tie vote occurred and caused consternation among members.

The bug bit again on Monday night during the continuation of Town Meeting. This time, the green light timed out before the countdown ever got started. In addition, the roll call of how members voted froze on the big screen and would not scroll through the entire list. This problem appeared to be unrelated to the situation that occurred Saturday. Town Meeting members were not amused.

"These problems undercut the importance of voting. I'm embarrassed that this machinery does not work well. We are not getting the value for the money," said Precinct 5's Michael Withington, who received a round of applause from his fellow members.

Unrecorded or misrecorded votes is another concern. With the first article of Special Town Meeting at the start of the day, several members complained their votes had not been recorded. At least nine people stated their votes were not shown on the screen after balloting. The tally was manually adjusted to include the missing votes, which did not change the outcome.

Fite insists this is a result of operator error. Members must vote using a handheld device they receive when they check in at Town Meeting. The unit looks similar to a television remote with a keypad of buttons from 1 to 10. For Plymouth, members select 1 for "yes", 2 for "no" and 3 for "abstain." The other buttons don't function.

"They are either not pushing the buttons properly or they are not using it in the time allotted," Fite said. "If the device is not working correctly, we replace it. However, when we test the handheld units, we usually find there is no problem."

Several Town Meeting members expressed their displeasure with the electronic voting equipment on Saturday. Arrighi said she complained to Option Technologies and received an apology. She is considering other options for the future but stated neighboring towns have had similar problems with other vendors. The combination of finicky software and human error may just be a condition that modern democracy will have to learn to live with.

"Don't get me wrong," Arrighi said. "People love it (electronic voting). We just wish it worked better. I don't think anyone wants to go back to counting hands or paper ballots during votes."

©2019 Wicked Local South/Mariner, Marshfield, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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