We saw a lot of over-votes in Alabama on the March 1 primary presidential primary, but unfortunately there’s little – if anything – that can be done about it with the system we have now. The software simply isn’t capable of enforcing the voting rules in the primary, which are (for both Republican & Democratic parties) that voters may only vote for delegate candidates who are pledged to the candidate they selected at the top of the ballot.
This is written on the ballots themselves – and is even in bold! – yet many voters missed it or misread it. That’s not a new situation: people make mistakes and primary turnout is often low. A lot of people were voting for delegates for the first time, while others hadn’t voted in a presidential primary since 2008.
What was different in 2016 – in many Alabama counties – were new voting machines equipped with software that isn’t capable of accurately counting delegate votes according to party rules. It was possible for a Republican primary voter to select Ted Cruz for president and then vote for delegates pledged to Cruz, Bush, Trump, etc. In the Democratic primary, a voter could select Clinton for president then vote for Sanders, O’Malley, Clinton, and Uncommitted delegates. All of those votes were counted as valid.
I contacted Frank Barger, the Elections Administrator in Madison County, and he was very helpful and answered many questions I had about the machines, maintenance, etc. However, he asserted that the over-voting has been an issue for “many election cycles” and the previous machines were also incapable of counting delegate votes accurately.
Indeed, I did find one instance of verifiable over-voting in the 2012 Democratic Primary in CD-06. That year, 1605 people voted uncommitted, but the lone uncommitted delegate candidate got 3584 votes. Compare that to CD-05, where 6066 people voted uncommitted, but the lone uncommitted delegate got 4930 votes.
The “Uncommitted” spots are some of the easiest over-votes to spot because the numbers are low & usually attract only a few candidates. Those were the totals that received the most scrutiny this year because they’re so out of whack with the popular vote. In Madison County, in 2016, just 263 voters selected “Uncommitted” on the Democratic ballot,but NO “Uncommitted” delegate received fewer than 849 votes – and one got over 6,000. Those wide margins are the same across the state.
Are the new machines worse at counting votes than the previous models or have voters gotten even worse at filling out ballots?
The solution is obviously, to ask the vendor, Election Systems & Security (ESS), to provide a software upgrade. The software now counts every vote for delegate as “valid” whether it conforms to party rules or not. It appears that they’ve tried – for years – to make this work, but to no avail. The company’s latest attempt to add support for presidential primary delegate races ended in November 2011, when it sent a letter to the US Election Assistance Commission that abandoned its effort to get certification for Version 5.0 of the software. That version would have added the ability to manage presidential primary delegate votes.
It’s also interesting to note that ES&S received the contract to develop the state’s online voter registration system and manage the AlabamaVotes Web site. It’s the one that crashed the morning of March 1 when voters swamped the servers trying to locate their assigned polling place. As the Montgomery Advertiser reported, Secretary of State John Merrill didn’t exactly display grace under fire:
The Secretary of State’s website is still experiencing issues, and on social media, Sec. John Merrill is taking some heat. In exchanges with a number of citizens who are complaining about being unable to find the location of their polling place on the site, Merrill has instructed them to call his office (334-242-7200). He also drew heavy criticism for responding to one person on Twitter: “Apparently you and several thousand other people waiting until today to try to find their polling place.”
Merrill also was less than kind to the service provider, ES&S, which is Election Systems and Software provider, over the malfunction, tweeting that his office “inherited this contract,” and telling another person on Twitter that “if you can provide this service we will consider your proposal when we re-bid this.”
ES&S was paid more than $1.7 million in 2015 to provide election software and maintain the alabamavotes.gov website. Merrill’s office paid the company over $98,000 in January.
We have 4 years before the next presidential primary and unfortunately, our options are limited.
- Buy new equipment – Highly unlikely, given that we just got new stuff.
- Pressure ES&S to fix the problem – They have tried before, but a new version might fix it.
- Enable the image capture function – The machines can be set up to make a copy of each ballot that goes through the machine. You can go back and look at the ballots without opening the sealed ballot boxes or tampering with them.
- Change the way delegates are selected – That’s up to the state parties to decide. Not all states elect delegates in the primary. In some states (like California and Ohio), the campaigns get to name their own delegates after the primary. Other states use a caucus/convention system to choose delegates. The only requirement for delegate selection really is to use a process that’s been approved by the national Republican or Democratic parties.
- Be prepared for heavy server traffic on election day. DUH.
- Spend a heck of a lot more time on voter education – Poll workers reported numerous problems with voter confusion and a tremendous number of spoiled ballots. Some voters went through as many as 3 ballots. Other states distribute voter guides that describe the election process, mechanics of voting, laws, candidates, and ballot initiatives.Alabama has an online voter guide and there are also printed copies available. Other states mail a voter guide to every registered voter well in advance of the election. Alabama’s guide provides a lot of valuable information, but doesn’t describe the actual mechanics of marking a ballot. Some primary ballots this year were multipage and quite long.
None of this information should be taken and used to denigrate the hard work of our local election officials and poll workers. As Mooncat explained when she documented her experience:
So, the work is hard, the hours are long, the pay is ok at best, you will have to be courteous, polite and helpful to a complete cross section of the public who may not be at their best — but you should still do this if you can. It will leave you with a really good feeling about democracy, your community and yourself.
I found being a poll worker much more rewarding than being a poll watcher, who is a near powerless outsider only allowed observe the process. Poll workers are the essential cogs in our election process so please get involved if you can.
The problems we have locally begin at the state and national level.
Next up in our series, we’ll discuss security concerns with voting equipment including known problems with the DS200 machines and ballot security issues in general. Unfortunately, even if we ditched the new equipment, there’s really no guarantee that the replacements would be any more secure or reliable.
Cameron Kelly-Johnson is an economist, political analyst, data geek, technology aficionado and general consultant. He is luckily complemented by his wife Jennifer who agrees that their marriage is data driven and fact based. Contact him at CKJ@ckj411.com orhttp://www.ckj411.com.
Larisa Thomason is an LIA editor/admin, which she describes as “the worst, most important volunteer job” she’s ever had. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org