Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Early Voting Experience Challenging For New Voters And Election Workers Alike

The early voting experience has been challenging for voters and early voting election workers alike this year. In a Dallas Morning News report headlined, "Early voters report obstacles at polls," the newspaper says, "At another Collin County station, voters whose names were not listed in the state's new electronic voter database – even some with registration cards – were turned away and told to come back later."

Actually, none of the voters who turned in a new voter registration registration application or change of information form after some point in mid September can not be found by Collin County's new ePollBook system being used by elections clerks to qualify voters when they show up to vote.

This is what went wrong and why election clerks have been calling the election office voter look up hot line so often to manually qualify and check in so many properly registered voters.

The new VoteSafe ePollBook election software package that Collin County recently purchased from the San Diego based election management application software vendor Votec, and is using for the first time in this election to look up voters, works much differently from the old election software the county has used to qualify and check-in voters for several prior years.

The old election software application could access the most current registration data, but the new VoteSafe application can only access an old copy of the registration data created some weeks before the start of early voting.

This year many thousands of new voter registration applications postmarked from September through the October 4th registration cutoff date had yet to be processed when the registrar's master voter registration database was copied to load onto the VoteSafe ePollBook check-in laptops. Election clerks are using those laptops, loaded with the newly purchased VoteSafe election software and old registration data, to check-in voters for the November 4, 2008 election early voting period.

Almost all of the voter registration applications postmarked from September through the October 4th had actually been processed and entered into the registrar's master voter registration database by the first day of early voting. However, election clerks using the new VoteSafe ePollBook software application to check-in voters can see only an old copy of registration information that, by the start of early voting, was already several weeks old.
So, early voting election clerks can not use the check-in computers to directly qualify, perhaps, up to 20,000 newly registered voters.
For these newly minted voters the election the Judge, Alternate Judge or designated "special help" clerk must call the "County Elections Office Voter Look Up Phone Hot Line." Voter ID information is verbally repeated to hot line help clerks who then access the master voter registration database to verbally qualify each of the new voters. The voter's name, registration certification number and other information must then be manually written on the election combination signature form and also again separately written on a "tally" list by the Judge, Alternate Judge or designated clerk so the elections office can later mark the voter's master record as "voted." During the ten days of early voting so far, many thousands of new voters across Collin County have been "manually" qualified to vote using this procedure.

At least one Election Judge and Alternate Judge team in charge of the Carpenter Park Recreation Center Early Voting Location immediately realized the "voter not found" problem was due to ePollBook software issues and started calling the Collin County election office voter look up hot line to manually qualify voters from the first hour of early voting.

Unfortunately, Judges and Alternate Judges at most other early voting locations incorrectly told voters presenting a newly issued orange voter registration card, which VoteSafe could not qualify, that they could not vote or that they must go through the time consuming process of completing a "provisional ballot."
These Election Judges had no idea that the newly purchased VoteSafe check in software functioned far differently from the software they had used for several years to qualify and check in voters. Election Judges expected to find a current voter registration record via VoteSafe for anyone presenting a registration card, even for any just issued cards, because that is the way the process had always worked in the past.
When VoteSafe returned "Not Found" on people presenting new registration cards with, what most Judges likely thought were, usually high registration serial numbers during the first days of early voting, some Judges possibly considered that some kind of voter fraud was being perpetrated -- After all, conservative talk radio commentators have been warning for weeks that Democrats, aided by ACORN, are plotting to steal the 2008 election and that liberal voter fraud is rampant. The lion's share of newly registered voters are likely planning to vote for Democratic candidates.
Still, it is difficult to fault Election Judges for initially being suspicious of these "not found" registration records, even for people presenting a valid registration card, because they were never told about the radical change in software function and election procedure with the adoption of the VoteSafe application.
By the middle of the first week of early voting Sharon Rowe, the Collin County Election Administrator, had instructed all the early voting Judges that voters should not be turned away or told to fill out provisional ballots when a new voter's registration can be verified by calling the Elections Office Voter Look Up Hot Line.

How does this new VoteSafe election software application work?

As the picture shows there are two main component assembles of the "VoteSafe" ePollBook application system. One component assembly of this distributed ePollBook application system is installed on laptop computers used at the polling locations to look up and qualify voters during voter check-in.

The Votesafe configuration on each of these voter check-in laptops includes a copy of the master voter registration database that, by the start of early voting, was signifigantly out of date.

The Votesafe software running on each voter check-in laptop uses its own local copy of the voter registration database to look up and qualify voters to receive a ballot.

Part of the look up information returned to the election clerk, for each qualified voter, is the particular "ballot style" that each voter must be given to vote. (Collin County has 52 unique ballot styles for this election.) Each voter qualified by the clerk to receive a ballot is then marked as 'Has Voted' in the local registration file copy installed on the check-in laptop used by that particular clerk. The laptop prints a label containing the voter's registration serial number and other information. The clerk affixes the label to the combination signature, which the voter then signs. After this check-in procedure is complete the voter is given a ballot card and allowed to mark the ballot.

The other part of the distributed VoteSafe application system runs on the county's election office elections server. This part of the VoteSafe application periodically connects, via a secure Internet connection, with each voter check-in laptop used at each early voting polling location to upload the names of people who are marked as 'Has Voted' in the laptop's registration data file.

New voter registration records added and old records that are updated in the registrar's master voter registration database after it was copied, to be installed on each of the check-in laptops, does not synchronize down to the local check-in laptops laptop computers.
According to data posted on the Texas Secretary of State and Collin County Elections Office websites approximately 20,000 new voters registered to vote in Collin County between March 2008 and September 2, 2008 boosting the total number of registered voters to 403,465. Voter registration drives continued across the county until the October 6th registration cutoff date and a small mountain voter applications postmarked up to October 6th date continued to flow into the county registrar's office every day for several days after the cutoff date. The Collin County master voter registration database contained approximately 408,000 registered voters by Oct 1, 2008, with a five or six day backlog of registration applications still waiting to be processed. The final tally of registered voters will be in the neighborhood of 424, 000 people.
We can, then, conclude that approximately 20,000 new voter registration records have been added to the registrar's master registration data base since the data was copied to be loaded into each of the local Votesafe ePollBook check-in laptops. It is these newly added and update voter records that are not directly available to election clerks through the Votesafe ePollBook system. Election clerks must qualify these voters by calling the Elections Office Voter Look Up Hot Line and then hand write their information on the signature combination form. This results in additional delays for voters who must wait in a special 'Hot Line' lookup voter line after first waiting in the regular check-in line.

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