John Heaton (jheaton) wrote,
John Heaton

Election season is upon us!

I dropped by the City Clerk's office this morning to attend a hands-on training session for the new tabulators that wll be used for the first time in Madison next month. And I was excited to do so, because it means elections season is upon us!

Like warmer weather, election season has been slow in coming this year. Under state law, there are two regularly scheduled non-partisan elections scheduled each year: a primary in February, and a general in April. The problem is, here in Madison there was no primary, because a historically small number of candidates rendered one unnecessary. Only two of the offices up for election in Madison are contested -- a Dane County Board of Supervisors seat and a school district seat -- and only two candidates each filed for those, so no primary was necessary.

Which was a cruel blow for an election junkie like me. I'm not saying every year should be like 2012, when we had six elections in ten months, two of them historically large in terms of turnout, but when February rolled around I was ready for the 10-month election hiatus to be over. But no, I have to wait. Boo!

Anyway, about those new tabulators. They're pretty slick! Functionally, they're pretty similar to the old one: you feed your marked paper ballot into the slot, and the machine counts it. Easy peasy! The major difference is in the how the ballots are scanned. The old ones used the same sort of optical scanning technology employed by Scantron machines to score standardized tests, meaning they had to marked either in No. 2 pencil or with special graphite-ink pens. These new scanners work more like photocopiers or flatbed scanners, so instead of just reading the data they capture an image of the entire ballot. That should make auditing for accuracy easier.

Another advantage: they're lighter and easier to move around. The old ones were staggeringly heavy, as were the ballot carts upon which they rested. The bins also had wheels that were thoroughly inadequate, making them exceedingly difficult to wrestle into position. The new carts have nice big wheels that actually turn.

The new tabulators also have LCD screens that prominently display the vote count and, if an overvoted ballot is inserted, explain what and where the problem was. We could have used that in the last Presidential election, where a poorly designed ballot led to an enormously large number of overvotes. The big problem in 2012 was that in order to explain to the voter the mistake they'd made, we election officials would have to look at their ballot, which is a no-no. (Technically, under state law, showing someone your marked ballot is considered a form of election fraud.) But the new tabulator is smart enough to "see" which office was overvoted and display that information on the screen.

The only downside to these new machines is that they don't have a diverter bin. The old tabulators could detect when a write-in vote was cast and divert those ballots to a separate bin, which made counting the write-ins at the end of the night a lot easier. But apparently adding a diverter and diverter bin to the new tabulators and carts would have made them half again more expensive, so they decided not to bother. Besides, the diverter wasn't perfect, so we always had to look at all the ballots anyway, just to make sure no write-ins were missed. The difference is that we could get people working on the diverted ballots while everyone else looked for ones that the diverter missed. Now we won't be able to get that little head start.

There will be one other major change for me in this next election; my polling place used to be home to two wards (or precincts, as they're called almost everywhere else) but now will be home to just one. What happened was that the city just decided to combine those two wards into one. Neither one ever had a particularly large turnout, so it shouldn't prove to be a problem for us. In fact, it should be easier, because we'll have just one set of poll books, one ballot, and so on. Actually, wait, we'll still have two ballots, unless they redrew the alder district boundaries. And since part of the ward is in the Sun Prairie School District for some reason, we could have as many as three. Anyway, the one downside to combining the wards is that we'll probably have fewer poll workers, so it may take longer to set things up in the morning. We'll see.
Tags: elections, wisconsin: madison

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