In Tuesday's municipal elections, state officials tested a new $100,000 computerized system they've been developing to bring reporting of voting results into the 21st Century — but what was supposed to be fast and efficient often turned out to be balky and frustrating.
In 32 towns and cities, the computerized system was supposed to produce reports on local election vote tallies and send them to the office of Secretary of the State Denise Merrill in Hartford. But only 13 of the towns' voting officials succeeded, and 19 had to do it the old-fashioned way — with pencil, paper and a fax machine.
Even a 21-year-old college kid, who had interned in Merrill's office, couldn't make it work in one of the test towns, Simsbury.
Many towns' results were submitted to Merrill's office well past the legal deadline of 6 p.m. the day after Tuesday's election. For example, it wasn't until late Thursday that official results were completed in Hartford, where only 2,449 people voted out of 47,031 who were registered there (a paltry 5.21-percent turnout), and the numbers weren't posted on Merrill's website until Friday.
The less-than-glowing performance left Merrill saying in an interview Friday that "I'm hopeful" that the problems can be worked out in the system before the statewide gubernatorial election in 2014. But, try as she did to sound upbeat, she added: "I don't want to over promise. ... I mean, we've just come out of Obamacare" — a reference to major computer system problems that have afflicted the rollout of the new federal health care initiative.
Merrill gave a C+ grade to Tuesday's Election Night performance. Others were tougher markers.
Simsbury's Democratic registrar of voters, Karen Cortés — a big believer in computerizing results-reporting — said she might grade it in two ways: an F or A+.
Here's her reasoning: The new system was designed to let local voting officials enter balloting totals into a pre-existing computer form, then push a "send" button that would transmit them to Hartford in a split-second. But, she said, there was a big problem: The computer system did not allow for people who registered as voters at the polling place Tuesday under the new Election Day Registration law.
"After all the hoop-dee-doo, we typed old-fashioned head moderators' reports for submission to the secretary of the state," and then faxed them into Merrill's office using 20th-century technology. The new system "didn't serve its purpose, and I would give it an F."
But she said the system might get an A+ if a town had only one voting place, instead of four as Simsbury does — and if no one showed up to register at the polling place under the new law, she said. Under those ideal conditions, the system would work well. Cortés said the new system, being developed by an outside contractor for Merrill's office, "will get there … but it isn't there yet."
There have been suggestions that part of the problem is that many local voting officials are elderly and not computer-savvy — as if Fred and Ethel Mertz of "I Love Lucy" were working with laptops and taking the results off the voting machines.
But Cortés said that in Simsbury, she was lucky enough to be working with a 21-year-old college student, Andrew O'Connor, who served as head election moderator. She added that O'Connor had interned in Merrill's office, was deeply involved with the new computerized program and actually had trained voting officials in other towns.
"I was working with a 21-year old, and I'm 44, and one of the younger registrars in the state," and the system still didn't work, she said.
Merrill said Friday that "we learned some things" from Tuesday's experience, adding that she hopes to test the system again in May, when four municipalities have elections.
She said that next year's gubernatorial election is actually less complicated for computer purposes than the 165 local votes last Tuesday — because the same offices will be up for election in all 169 Connecticut towns: governor, other statewide officers such as attorney general, as well as federal and state legislators. That's easier than setting up a different computer form for each town, where there are local councils, boards of selectmen, and boards of education that vary in size and composition, Merrill said.
Last week, Merrill's office posted electronic copies of all the local towns' results on its website and there was a wide variety of hand-scrawled numbers, amended results and inconsistent forms.
But, Merrill said, this is the first time the Secretary of the State's office has ever posted results online in that way, and it's a start toward "more transparency" as well as increased speed and accuracy. She said that she also instituted use of a better fax system that converts a document into an electronic copy in an e-mail — a pdf image — that can be posted directly on the website.
Still, there were problems enough to prompt Merrill's staff attorney, Ted Bromley, to send an email Friday to all town clerks and election officials — telling them that they need to use a specific, consistent state form to clean up their final reports of vote totals. Those need to be turned in by Nov. 15.
"We will review the returns filed by November 15, 2013. If our office still does not have a head moderator's return on the prescribed form …from your town, we will begin assessing fines in the amount of $50.00 and will refer your town to the State Elections Enforcement Commission for additional action," Bromley wrote.
The state finds hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to spend on projects not everyone agrees are worthwhile — such as the New Britain to Hartford busway now being built, and the ongoing construction of a new facility for Maine-based Jackson Laboratory on the UConn Health Center campus in Farmington that is supposed to create many jobs.
So why can't it find more than $100,000 or so to modernize the voting results system?
Merrill said Friday that she thinks she's got all the money she needs. "For once, I'm not sure more money will help. We are developing what I think will be a good system … Hopefully we will have all the bugs out of this" by next year's election.
The overall goal, she said, is to balance the speed and efficiency of computers with the accuracy and security of the voting results.
Cortés, the Simsbury registrar, said in an op-ed submission to The Courant that more action is needed — including legislative action.
"Protecting the integrity and security of our elections must be paramount, but much can be done to improve the process. To deliver the near instantaneous results the public expects and deserves, Connecticut must make way legislatively for technology to do its job,'' Cortés wrote.
"Our voting machines have the capacity to transmit results electronically," she wrote. "For all the potential for streamlined reporting, the transmission ports on Connecticut's voting machines are covered in numbered security seals. And so continues the archaic method of hand copying results on a report.''
"This year, I knew the results of the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races before I knew the results of my own local election. Connecticut voters deserve better."
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115. His Twitter address is @jonlender.