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HEART OF DEMOCRACY: Vote count watching demystifies process

Boone County Clerk gracious and helpful as I watch staff tally votes
 
COLUMBIA, 4/10/13 (Op Ed) -- As she and a 4-person staff became the beating heart of democracy last Tuesday, Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren graciously showed this writer how they team up to tally over 19,000 votes from across the county.

I experienced a fascinating, first-time look at the men, women -- and machines -- that maintain American representative government by making sure every vote counts. A must-do on every candidate's list, vote count watching was so interesting and fast-paced, it shouldn't be hard to assign to volunteers -- or other journalists -- even in the midst of election-night watch parties.

In a nutshell, Noren's staff counts absentee votes first with a ballot-counting machine in a room off the main lobby of her second-floor office at the Roger B. Wilson Boone County government building. This year, 664 people voted absentee.
 
Next, they count votes from each precinct by uploading floppy diskettes from ballot scanners and an iPad-like touch screen voting machine called iVote. With each updated tally, they post the results online. The process starts at just before 7 pm and ends after 10 pm.

For me -- and hopefully others during future elections -- watching the vote count opened my eyes and busted some myths.
 
"If they count the precincts the same way they did last election, I'll win," Gary Kespohl told his election night watch party. But how Mr. Kespohl can say something like this is anybody's guess. The way Clerk Noren's staff counts precincts should have no effect on the outcome, but rumors like this have swirled for years, prompting my interest in the process.

"This time in 2010, Kespohl was losing by well over 100 votes," said Larry Grossman, who used to own the Add Sheet. "The Democratic precincts are always counted first."
 
Clerk Noren would likely take issue with that myth, too. I didn't take notes and maybe I missed something, but I saw no evidence she counts "Democratic precincts first." I also have to chuckle at Grossman's remark, reported in the Missourian, since City Council races are non-partisan.
 
Before the counting started, Clerk Noren introduced me to Republican and Democrat election judges who monitor partisan races in other parts of the County.
 
I was a non-partisan monitor, watching the count on behalf of Columbia Proposition 1, the Charter Amendment restricting eminent domain. Later, Jeff Frey arrived to monitor the vote count on behalf of Columbia Mayoral candidate Sid Sullivan.
 
Clerk Noren gave us carte blanche, instructing her staff to answer all our questions and let us observe every procedure, which had me peering over shoulders all night. The count room became a whirl of activity -- four staffers, two judges, Jeff, myself, the Clerk, and dozens of poll workers delivering results from over 100 precincts.
 
I stood most of the evening to dodge all the movement.
 
Shortly after 3 pm, Art, an experienced ballot counter, unpacked the absentee ballots from a locked box and loaded them into a machine that counted and sorted: darkened ovals clearly indicating votes; write-in candidates; blank ballots; ballots with wayward marks that might take human eyes to decipher.
 
The machine zipped the ballots into a metal tray with two small shock-absorbing sponges. The sponges were worn, so when the ballot edges hit them, sometimes they bounced back, once tearing and jamming the ballot tray. No problem: Art repaired the ballot with tape and ran it through.
 
To remove wayward marks that also hold up the machine, the team places white stickers -- like removable white-out -- over the marks and re-counts the ballots. They never erase or alter anything; the stickers are easily peeled off to reveal the marks beneath.
 
A few glitches handled quickly, it took about 45 minutes to count absentees -- the evening's first results after the polls closed at 7 pm. I left to catch up on some errands, returning just before seven.
 
The IT team had arrived by then, setting up two computer/server arrays that would harvest votes from three types of floppy disk: one from the machine that counted the absentee ballots; dozens from the ballot scanning machines at each precinct; and a small, palm-sized disk from the area's only "iVote" terminal, a touch-screen voting booth that looks like a big iPad.
 
Offline to avoid hacking, the two computer/servers were slow to boot, so the 2-person IT team checked connections, made phone calls, and got everything running. "The servers are ten years old -- Microsoft 2003," they explained.

I heard noise outside the counting room so I went out and peered over the balcony onto the lobby of the Roger B. Poll workers were delivering sealed cases of ballots and disks that headed upstairs to the counting room.
 
Art unpacked the cases, where each disk came with a Ballot Certification sheet signed by multiple judges at each precinct. "We have over 200 precinct judges," Noren explained.
 
The IT team uploaded disks to computers and tallied each precinct's results, updating the Clerk's website between precinct deliveries. Computers in the vote counting room are not online, so the team downloads the tallies to a data stick, runs it to the IT department, and uploads the results to the web.

Jeff and I were a privileged pair: We got to see the results about 10 minutes before the public.

The process seems clunky, Noren pointed out. So-called paperless voting generates piles of paper and "seamless" digital technologies have plenty of seams. But as she noted, "it's all about redundancies. If something isn't working, we have redundant procedures to take its place."

Quality control is also a priority, best illustrated by a random precinct recount the partisan judges perform. Eyes closed, they select a precinct number from a box of paper slips, keeping the selection confidential until the recount. Even Clerk Noren doesn't know which precinct will be recounted.

The team also checks computer-generated tallies against human-generated spreadsheets, and takes every possible measure to count each ballot, no matter how hard to decipher.

Noren caught one ballot from a disabled person that might have been hard for a machine to decipher. With the intervention of human eyes, she made sure it was counted.
 
As the hectic evening slowed, I wondered why so few people in Columbia and Boone County have ever taken the opportunity to learn how votes are tallied, and better yet -- watch the process in action. What a cool student project. What a great feature story for a news outlet, right before an election.
 
What a perfect job for the League of Women Voters, CiViC, GRO, or other political action groups.
 
Clerk Noren was as generous with her time as a tour guide. She and her staff demystified every step of the vote count, leaving me thinking that those few Americans who get to observe the heart of democracy in full beat, as Jeff and I did, are a privileged group, indeed.


-- Mike Martin for the Columbia Heart Beat
 
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