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Elections Commissioners Discuss How To Improve Voting Process

OSWEGO, NY – The general election earlier this month went smoothly, despite a couple bumps in the road, according to Oswego County’s two elections commissioners.

The bumps, however, were greatly magnified due to the intense scrutiny focused on the special election for the 23rd Congressional District, which was held in conjunction with the regular general election.

Democratic Elections Commissioner William Scriber speaks to the Community and Consumer Affairs Committee. Seated in front is Legislator Phil Vasho.

Democratic Elections Commissioner William Scriber speaks to the Community and Consumer Affairs Committee. Seated in front is Legislator Phil Vasho.

Conservative Doug Hoffman claimed an error in the vote count on election night prompted him to concede, thinking he couldn’t catch up with Democrat Bill Owens.

The margin wasn’t such a big one after all, and he “un- conceded.”

As the results became official, the margin was insurmountable, and he conceded again.

“The election went great,” Democratic Elections Commissioner William Scriber told the Community and Consumer Affairs Committee. “We were one of 18 pilot counties; we were the second largest pilot county.”

From 6 in the morning until 9:05 p.m., things went perfectly, he noted.

“We had very few problems. There are some minor things; poll sites are going to need to be changed,” Scriber said.

With the new system, training was a problem, he added.

There were some fantastic poll sites, such as the Elks Club in Oswego, to “long physical labor sites, he said.

“Outside that, the election went fine,” Scriber told the committee. “The three machines that we replaced were paper jams. No machine failed.”

Republican Elections Commissioner Don Wart echoed Scriber’s opinion.

“Everything did run perfectly from the time the polls opened until the time they closed,” he said. “We opted to go into the pilot program because we knew there were going to be problems. You never go down the path of a new program without having some problems along the way.”

They didn’t have the types of problems they anticipated; the machine worked fine, he pointed out.

“We felt the voter turnout in 2009 would be something better for us to sharpen our teeth on (instead of waiting until the larger, state and federal elections in 2010). We felt it was better to take this on this year,” he explained.

Those people who worked the general election worked new machines for the very first time, Wart told the committee. The workers who did the primaries had the advantage during the general election of already having had some experience with the machines.

“Are there some areas that need to be fixed and corrected? Absolutely,” he said.

People want instant gratification with change, they have little patience for letting the process work, he added.

“Instant gratification is where we are. The process will work. There are some things that have to be changed. There are poll sites that are going to be closed; there are poll sites that are going to be moved, there are issues that have to be addressed and we will address them” Wart said. “That’s why we went into a pilot program, to learn those things so we could move forward and take care of those things before the elections next year.”

“As you might expect, many legislators are not happy with how the whole election went. I’m not speaking about the machines. I understand the machines did their job, thank God,” Legislator Louella LeClair said. “The training was, obviously, a major, major, major problem. I was called all day the next day with horror stories.”

The training was expanded, “tripled,” this year, Scriber said.

“They received hands-on training regarding the new system with personalized instructions,” he said. “I think we more than adequately trained them.”

A lot of them probably over-reacted to some things because of the new machines and a new way of doing things, he added.

“How do we train for that, I don’t know,” he said. ”

LeClair told of complaints from poll workers who had to stay at the site until everything was picked up, at one site when the tape came out of the machine there were seven inspectors there “and none of them had a clue what to do with it,” and one instance where a poll worker actually cast the ballot for the voter.

“It was not a pretty picture,” LeClair said. “That’s all I can say.”

Legislator Mary Flett said some of the poll workers trying to call in reports told her that they couldn’t get through the phone lines.

“With everyone trying to report right after the polls close, does create a problem,” Wart said. “Those that get done faster tend to get through, the others get backed up.”

Legislator Barb Brown said she had no horror stories from her district. However, when she went to vote, “a gentleman from the other booth came over to me and said he couldn’t see,” she said. “I think we need portable lights on top of the cubicle things because the lighting in the building isn’t set up for spotlighting.”

Committee chair Kevin Gardner wondered if some partitions could be put up around the booths. If the machine kicks back someone’s ballot, currently, it is possible for someone in line behind them to see who they’re voting for, he said.

That is a concern statewide, Scriber replied. It is being addressed at the state level.

“We appreciate those comments. And, we are going to react to them,” Scriber said.

“Some of these inspectors saw these tapes for the very first time (on election night),” Wart added. “Did we anticipate that part of the process being as confusing as it was? Absolutely not.”

About $16,000 was budgeted for training. The actual cost will likely be closer to $30,000. The commissioners have asked for a budget increase for training for 2010.

It’s “unrealistic” to think someone will walk into a new system and not have some sort of problems at the end of the day (which in some cases could be 18 hours) even after training, Wart said.

In 1997, Oswego became the first county to put election results up on the web, Scriber said. That can cause problems as “web” numbers aren’t official and can change quite a lot, he continued.

“Human error being human error – what is called in isn’t always going to be the right number. People working 17 – 18 hours a day are going to make mistakes,” Scriber said. “That is why we have re-canvas. We don’t recount, we audit; then we re-canvas and we recount.”

Were there results called in on election night (to be posted on the website) that weren’t the results on the tape (of the voting machines)? Yes, the commissioners said.

“People make mistakes. They made them last year and the year before. I am not going to beat them up if they read something wrong,” Scriber said. “Our job is, the day after, to take the tapes and double check the numbers and make corrections where necessary.”

There have always been problems; it just so happens a high-profile race got involved this time, Scriber said referring to the race between Owens and Hoffman.

“But that wasn’t the election. The election was people voted, getting their votes recorded, counted, and the certification. Don and I certified today, ahead of schedule. We usually certify after Thanksgiving,” Scriber said at Wednesday’s committee meeting. “So, I think the process went well; except for a few minor things.”

In the future, the county will go totally computerized, Scriber said.

There will be a cost associated with that, he cautioned the legislators.

Legislator Barry Leemann, chair of the legislature, told the commissioners that he received an e-mail from someone in Scriba saying they had never seen a better run election; it was easy to get in and out (of the Scriba fire barn).

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