LOCKPORT – A new election night reporting system was put into effect by the Niagara County Board of Elections on Tuesday, along with a new website design.
It was supposed to provide faster and more accurate returns, but instead, the new system produced the slowest returns seen in the county since its election system entered the computer age 25 years ago.
Niagara County – normally one of the fastest-reporting counties in the region – posted no returns at all until almost 11 p.m. Tuesday, and the board count wasn’t completed until nearly 1 a.m., irking candidates and the media alike.
Democratic Election Commissioner Nancy L. Smith said the county ordered the new equipment in February from Dominion Voting Systems, the company that produced the electronic ballot scanners now used at every polling place.
“We hoped to have a trial run in one of our primaries,” Smith said. But the equipment wasn’t delivered until shortly before the Sept. 13 primary, so the county decided to give the old system one last run and let the new format make its debut on the night of the presidential election.
“It was the first time this car was taken out of the garage and given a real ride,” said Larry L. Helwig, the county’s information technology director. “Dominion had a very rigid training schedule. … We couldn’t get everyone trained in time for the primary.”
There were tests before the general election, and all went well, Smith said. But under real-world election night conditions, the system crashed.
Smith said the system the county had been using to post returns on its website involved several steps, with the possibility of human error creeping in at each one.
Under the old method, election inspectors, who tend to be senior citizens who have just completed a 16-hour day, were instructed to print out the result tape from the ballot scanner – until a couple of years ago, they read the numbers off the back of the old lever machines – and wrote down the results on a form called a “press report.”
The results then were phoned in to the data center operated by NTS, the county’s election technology contractor, and a clerk entered the numbers read over the phone into the system.
It was not unheard of for numbers to be transposed, skipped or otherwise entered erroneously. On at least one occasion, the wrong candidate was crowned the winner of a race, only to have the result corrected the next day.
Smith said the new method was intended to avoid such troubles.
The new process was to begin with one of the election inspectors at the site removing the memory card from the ballot scanner after the polls closed. The card was to be placed in a leather envelope and taken by the inspector to the town or city hall to be given to the municipal clerk.
The county had installed a memory card reader at each clerk’s office and programmed an existing town or city computer to support it. The clerk was to insert a memory card into the reader and watch for a green bar on the screen that showed the card had been read.
The electronic transmission was to go to a private county website via FTP, or file transfer protocol. A Board of Elections worker, using a “verify and publish” function, would confirm that the transmission had been received and click to post the number on the public website.
“Our process of getting to the clerks worked fine,” Smith said. But the clerks found that they couldn’t get the private website to accept the card readers’ output.
“We went to every town and city [before the election] and made sure the connection was good,” Smith said.
But those tests were done one municipality at a time. On Election Night, with 12 towns and three cities trying to transmit results simultaneously, the website crashed.
“The FTP site set up for us was not set up to handle the immediate volume,” Smith said.
“In the heat of the moment, there were some issues, and we couldn’t unravel it,” Helwig said.
“We did our backup plan. When we knew it wasn’t working, and the clerks were frustrated, we had all the cards brought here and entered into the system,” Smith said.
The time needed to put that plan into operation and have each town or city drive the memory cards to the election office in Lockport caused further delay, meaning that at a time when Niagara County returns were usually complete, they were just starting to appear online.
The new website did not contain settings for precinct-by-precinct results, as the old one did. Smith said that setting is likely to be added next year.
“This was our trial. In anything new, there’s going to be glitches,” Smith said.
“We’ve got to do another stress test when everyone is signing on at the same time,” Helwig said. “I guarantee it’ll work right the next time.”
In another unusual election situation, dozens of people jammed the counter area at the Board of Elections late in the afternoon of Election Day, while others milled around outside.
State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. issued 80 court orders allowing voters not on the registration polls to cast ballots.
The voters had been dropped from the rolls because they hadn’t voted recently or had moved without re-registering.
Smith said Niagara County Judge Matthew J. Murphy III and Family Court Judge John F. Batt issued about 30 similar orders in the week before the election.
Election inspectors are told to offer affidavit ballots to voters who aren’t on the rolls. That allows the Board of Elections – or, in close races, the candidates – to argue later about whether the vote should be counted.
But a court order means the voter can vote on the machine, no questions asked.
However, voters had to drive to Lockport and appear at the election office to obtain the judge’s order, then drive back to their polling place and vote on the machine.
Smith said Kloch granted every voter’s request for an order.