2016-09-01 / Front Page

Election deadline poses issue

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

OLD ORCHARD BEACH – As town clerks prepare ballots for this year’s presidential, state and local elections, many small towns are dealing with conflicting deadlines. The company that prepares local election ballots and programs voting machines, Election Systems & Software, is requiring clerks to submit all ballot information by Sept. 9 to guarantee delivery of ballots to the municipalities by Oct. 7 – when the 30-day pre-election period begins and absentee voting may occur.

Town Clerk Kim McLaughlin said the Sept. 9 deadline to submit information to the company is problematic because filing deadlines for candidates for town council and school board to submit their petitions is a later date, Sept. 26. McLaughlin said under state law, Title 30-A, which governs municipal elections, municipalities use a candidate filing deadline of 45 days before the election, unless otherwise specified within the municipality’s own charter.

State ballots for legislative, county and national races, will be coded and printed by the state and delivered to municipalities by Oct. 7, in time for absentee balloting. Those municipalities who are holding a municipal election on the same day however, must have their ballots coded and printed by Election Systems & Software at their own cost.

McLaughlin said she is concerned that Election Systems & Software may not have municipal ballots prepared and delivered to the town by Oct. 7 and the municipality will have state ballots in hand but not municipal ballots.

“This presidential election could be 10 times as crazy,” McLaughlin said. “We’re trying to do as many things as possible to make it as smooth as possible.”

McLaughlin said the town will make it as easy as possible for people to vote, including offering early voting at town hall weeks before the election.

Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn said the state is aware of the conflicting deadlines and is working with the company and clerks to make sure they receive their municipal ballots in time. Flynn said it will be important for towns in that situation to immediately submit their municipal ballot information to the company by the evening of Sept. 26 or the morning of Sept. 27 to allow the greatest possibility of municipal ballots being delivered by Oct. 7.

In an email sent to McLaughlin by Assistant Director of the Division of Elections Heidi Peckham, Peckham wrote, “Please relay this information, so that (Election Systems & Software) is aware of your later timeline. We are working closely with (Election Systems & Software) to streamline the communication and to hopefully make the whole process smoother.”

Flynn said some legislators have expressed concern with state law for municipal elections requiring a filing deadline of 45 days before the election if no other deadline is specified in the municipal charter because 45 days doesn’t give municipal clerks as much time to prepare ballots for the election. Flynn said she believes there will be a bill submitted to change the deadline to 60 days before the election.

“We need to ask the Legislature to move that deadline up,” she said.

Even though the company won’t guarantee the delivery of municipal ballots by Oct. 7 if the information is not submitted by Sept. 9, Flynn said the company is working with towns to try and get ballots printed and delivered in a short time frame. If the ballots are not delivered, Flynn said voters who wanted to vote by absentee would have to be given the state ballot so they could vote, and then be mailed the municipal ballot later, after the town receives them. Or, Flynn said, municipal clerks could opt not to use the machines for their municipal election and instead hand count the votes.

The voting machine model being used is the Election Systems & Software DS200 precinct scanner and tabulator. The state contracted with Election Systems & Software starting in 2012 to lease equipment and is contracted through 2019. Flynn said the cost to the state for leasing the machines is approaching $2.5 million for that entire duration, and the state provides the machines for free to municipalities with 1,000 or more voters. Other vendors who submitted proposals in 2012 entered bids at $3.8 million or higher.

The towns are not required to receive and use the machines, Flynn said, and could choose to hand count ballots. However, if any machine is used at all for the state election, it has to be the DS200.

Flynn said municipalities can make their own ballots as simple as possible by only including the questions or elections that are up for a vote on the ballot and not including extra information such as treasurer’s reports or explanations of ballot items. Instead, Flynn said, voter guides could be printed and given to the voter along with ballots.

“We had a local election in June that had a 10-page ballot with 140 items,” Flynn said. “By state law, they don’t have to print everything on the ballot … Clerks need to start thinking about and adjusting their thinking in how they prepare ballots, especially when going to longer ballots.”

Flynn said some town clerks are still attached to older systems that are outdated because they are used to them.

“I think (the DS200) is fine. It’s a digital scanner and reads the ballots much better,” Flynn said. “It does a lot better but we still have these towns that want to keep using their 30-year-old equipment that was analog equipment and isn’t even being manufactured anymore.”

Flynn said the system is “pretty clear,” and if a voter submits a ballot that has a problem, the screen alerts the voter and election clerk and the voter is given an opportunity to correct the mistake.

However, according to the Florida Fair Election Center, the DS200 has one of the highest rates of “over votes,” which is when a vote is disqualified because the voter voted for more candidates in an election than seats available. According to the center’s research, the DS200 accepts “over vote” ballots at a rate of .43 percent compared to the Sequoia Insight Plus, which registers over votes at .24 percent, or the Premier OS at .03 percent.

In a report about the machine, the center claims the higher over vote rate is due to ease by which an over vote ballot can be forced to be accepted and the psychology that encourages the voter to “accept” their faulty ballot instead of correcting it.

“Now let’s imagine the voter’s experience who mistakenly over votes on this machine. After waiting in line for a couple of hours to vote, he quickly marks his ballot and then inserts it into the machine only to have it begin emitting loud beeping noises and display a confusing message. The voter, who probably knows nothing about voting machines, is asked if he wants his ballot ‘accepted’ or ‘returned.’

“Voting has come to a stop as he tries to figure out what to do. Those behind him in line begin grumbling. The machine operator has to explain what has happened – that the voter has over voted and has the option of correcting the ballot. Does he want his ballot accepted or returned?

“At this point, the voter wants the embarrassing beeping noises to stop so that he will cease being the focus of attention. ‘Accepted’ sounds like the right choice, and it will immediately solve the problem. Plus, the accept button is a cheery green with a check mark while the return button is an ominous red with an X. But an ‘accepted’ ballot means his vote has been discarded. The psychology is all on the side of losing this vote.”

Flynn said the state contract is up for bid again in 2019 but law requires that there be a paper copy of all ballots cast, except in the case of handicap accessible voting, but even in those cases, a copy of the voter’s choices is printed.

Flynn said there is no chance the state would move to a vendor that uses touchscreen election machines that don’t provide a paper record.

“Not unless we change the law,” she said. “The law in Maine is that it has to be paper-recorded.”

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