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It looks as though the mad frenzy of candidates and reporters scrambling to read election results off grocery tapes on election night is a thing of the past.
During the June 3 primary election, Los Alamos County tested a method of reporting results electronically. The feedback received so far has been positive, and county staff is now reviewing what worked, what did not and how the system can be improved.
“The idea was, how can we bring this process into a more modern, digital, easy-access for all demographics that is updated regularly,” said Visual Information Specialist Leslie Bucklin. “Because we’re not Albuquerque, and we don’t have four news channels to get us all the results. So for us, it was how can we provide the same kind of service that a Channel 4 or Channel 7 would without having them?”
County Clerk Sharon Stover instigated the change.
“As we were visiting our public relations and outreach for election results in preparation for the primary, Clerk Stover was really looking to provide visually appealing information in a quicker fashion, rather than the old fashion tapes that we would lay out,” said Chief Deputy Clerk Adrianna Ortiz. “Seeing it from the candidate perspective, she felt that that was one area that we could improve on and get information out there in a more visually appealing way.”
The question was how to do that economically and accurately, especially for a trial run that would test the public’s response to the system.
Commercial elections software allows for quick updates of results and leaves little room for human error. However, initial costs for such systems are in the $12,000 range and require annual licensing fees. Bucklin noted that commercial software might be the most economical long-term solution, provided citizens believe digital reporting is important.
For the initial venture, the clerk’s office decided to test a solution that only involved staff time, although it commandeered a significant amount of that.
“The challenge was to do that in a manner that was not unduly burdensome and was easy to update. So I was trying to create a document where Adrianna could do one thing and it would update everything,” Bucklin said.
Bucklin created an Excel spreadsheet that would automatically update results as new data was entered. The information was then exported to a PDF that could be displayed using audiovisual equipment in council chambers and broadcast on the county’s website.
Ortiz was in charge of entering data and Service Delivery Manager Leah Frazier handled the audiovisual end.
In order to update results more quickly, the clerk’s office implemented another new procedure: sending messengers to vote centers to collect results rather than waiting for the presiding judge to close up the centers and deliver the data.
The new procedures expedited the process for posting election updates. The first results were posted just after the polls closed, showing results of early voting and absentee ballots. Updated figures were broadcast every 15 to 30 minutes as results came in from vote centers.
There was one glitch in the system that night. Councilor Rick Reiss was adding the results from each grocery tape — which were still posted — and realized the numbers displayed on the screen did not match. The results for Republican candidates for county council were being scrambled.
The error was due to a flaw in Microsoft Office. Staff had tried to eliminate errors by updating every computer used in the process to the same version of office, but one of the macros imbedded in the system began “flip-flopping” results.
“The problem with Microsoft Office programs is that there are so many things that are beneficial about them, and they can do so many things, but they have a lot of macros and scripts that try to do things for you. So when you’re creating a document from scratch, you’re not actually creating it from scratch, because it builds in its own little layers of control,” Bucklin said. “Excel likes to make assumptions as to what you want to do. And depending on what you’re doing, it can be extremely helpful or it can be a hindrance. In this case, it was very important that we had accuracy of data and things were talking back and forth.”
Bucklin was contacted by phone and directed staff on how to “trick” the system by reversing the input data.
If the same system is used during the general election, Bucklin will be searching for the source error to eliminate that issue. However, the county is investigating other options.
New voting machines coming online this fall may provide a solution that completely bypasses manual entry.
New Mexico Secretary of State Dianna Duran obtained new Dominion ImageCast machines for the fall elections.
One advantage is that the machines tabulate and report data in an HTML format. Data is currently tabulated using ASCII files, which are not compatible with most data entry systems, meaning data must be entered manually.
The HTML format opens up many possibilities, including creating an InDesign program. InDesign does not have the macros that created the flaw in Excel.
Data could also be linked directly to the website or accessed from Smart phones or iPads – although Bucklin warned the county may not be ready to access all those possibilities by the upcoming election.
Stover has also been in contact with Doña Ana County, which had access to the Dominion machines for the primary and utilized the machines’ capabilities to relay results on election night. The county’s information management staff will be talking to Doña Ana’s staff to learn what they did.
“The more guesswork we can eliminate through research with other counties or through troubleshooting, the less work we have in the future and the less chance of risk on election night, which, of course, is the most important part,” Bucklin said.
Stover will make the final decision about which system to implement this fall, but based on feedback after the primary, it will certainly be a digital one.
“Some of the feedback we received was very promising,” Ortiz said. “Everyone enjoyed it and were pleased that they weren’t fighting over the tape’s.”
“It communicated what we wanted to, which is, we’re trying to find a way to communicate data and update you in a timely, regular, trustworthy manner with minimal errors, if possible, and that is easy to access from home,” Bucklin added.
Bucklin would like to have more public input about the trial run.
“Feedback is always valuable from the public. It really doesn’t matter what the topic is. The more involved the public can be with county/government processes in general, the better we can serve the public,” Bucklin said.
“We can have lots of theories and ideas as to what would be cool to do, and then try to do it in the most cost effective and efficient way, but if the public doesn’t find a use for it or doesn’t like it, then it’s not as valuable as putting our efforts toward something that’s more important to the public.”
Those wanting to send feedback may do so by emailing email@example.com or calling 662-8010.
Comment forms are also available at the clerk’s office in the municipal building.
The clerk’s office expects the Dominion voting machines to arrive in July and to have the machines prepped and ready to demo to the public by early August.