By K.D. Norris
It is not that the Kent County Clerk’s office, or city clerks in both the cities of Wyoming and Kentwood, were expecting issues with the county’s new election equipment in the system’s debut Nov. 7 — an election dominated by local millage requests and city elections of little controversy.
But the election day did produce the as-expected small voter turnout while also revealing a few issues with the new equipment now easily remedied before elections of more state and national interest, and higher voter volume, come in 2018.
“Any time there is a transition as large as this — the first change in equipment and learned practices and procedures in over a decade — there are going to be challenges and areas to improve upon,” Robert Macomber, Chief Deputy County Clerk, said to WKTV Friday, slightly more than a week after the recent voting day, and after that day’s meeting between the county clerk’s office and local city clerks. “This ‘off-year’ election offered the county a tremendous opportunity to implement the changes when turnout was smaller, but still having elections in a large number of precincts and varying size of municipalities.”
Vote turnout was small, with only 11.2 percent of Wyoming’s 49,658 registered voters doing so, and 12.8 percent of Kentwood’s 35,178 registered voters doing so.
The voting system issues exposed on Nov. 7 were also small, according to Macomber, City of Wyoming City Clerk Kelli VandenBerg, and City of Kentwood City Clerk Dan Kasunic — most notably delays in reporting results from the precinct level to the county level, and inability of some voters to use new “adaptive” ballot marking devices.
After more than a year review and selection process, Kent County Clerk and Register of Deeds Lisa Posthumus Lyons early this year selected Dominion Voting Systems, Inc. as the vendor for Kent County’s new election equipment and local firm ElectionSource for associated software. The plan for the new voting machines was to have them used by all voting bodies in Kent County starting with the November election.
Some clerks across the state planned to use their new machines at the August 2017 election, and all municipalities are required to have the new machines in place by the August 2018 election.
Some experiences familiar, some were new
It appears the new machines — which still feature individual manual voting cards and stand-alone tabulators not connected to the internet — worked as expected and it was pretty much the same voter experience as with the old equipment. But a new system by which precinct totals are uploaded to a new county-controlled interactive precinct map experienced some delays, and, at least in Wyoming, special needs voters experienced some issues.
“Anytime you have change, there will be some reconciliation between what you expect to happen and what actually happens,” VandenBerg said to WKTV. “The equipment is new, but the concept or function of the new equipment is essentially the same. I think our poll workers responded very well and I did not receive any complaints from voters.
“For the average voter who marks and casts a ballot in the tabulator, I doubt their experience differed from previous elections. For voters using the adaptive equipment — ballot marking device, the difference would have been more notable. I am aware of a couple of instances where the selections made by voters or poll workers did not enable the audio on the adaptive devices. Based on required testing before each election, I know the audio works and so I know this is a topic that we will spend more time on in future trainings.
VandenBerg said she has “shared some recommendations (with the county on the issue) … but also have some training strategies in mind if those recommendations cannot be incorporated.”
In Kentwood, Kasunic also saw and dealt with a few small issues.
“As with any new equipment, it is expected to have some challenges, all of which were dealt with quickly and without any interruption of the election process,” he said to WKTV. “All of these have been addressed with the state, county and vendor.”
Kasunic added that he thought “all of the reporting went better than we thought, with a couple slowdowns because we have new equipment and procedures.”
Those “slowdowns” in reporting are probably getting the most attention by the clerks.
“One area that I thought might be problematic was the transmission of results at the end of election night,” VandenBerg said. “This equipment allows each precinct to modem results directly to Kent County and only 2 of Wyoming’s 26 tabulators were unable to modem results. Neither was the result of equipment failure, but rather an oversight by the poll workers adapting to a new process. In these cases, each (local) clerk has been provided equipment to allow for the transmission of results and I did so within a few minutes of receiving the necessary information from the precinct.”
New county system for rapid reporting of results
The changes to reporting are part of a new county system of quickly getting results out the public as well as to county, state and — eventually — federal officials.
“Election night reporting is the area where we’ve made the most noticeable change to the public,” Macomber said. “In previous elections, Kent County voters would often not have access to complete results in some instances until midnight, and that data was in non-interactive form. With our new equipment, the precincts modem the results to the county and on election night we had our first results within minutes of the polls closing.”
The new reporting system allows for public access through an interactive, map-based reporting feature developed by ElectionSource and accessible via the county’s website: accesskent.com.
“For this past election we unveiled an initial version, with the fully-functional version being ready for 2018’s elections,” Macomber said. “The public response to the faster, user friendly reporting feature has been very positive.”
But, VandenBerg added, it is not just night-of reporting which should be looked at: “I do think there is room for improvement on the reporting side, especially as it relates to canvassing and archival purposes. … I have shared some recommendations on that as well.”
And, Kasunic also advocated for a reporting tweak: “The county is working with the vendor to add features to the reporting to provide percentage of turnout of voters on election night.”
The lessons learned from the Nov. 7 election, and the results of the meeting with local clerks, will likely lead to some changes at the county level.
“This election provided the county and local clerks the ability to implement and identify the ways our internal procedures and controls conform to — or are challenged by — the new system,” Macomber said. “Where there were challenges, we’ll be working with our vendors, the state elections bureau, and our local clerks to implement changes that ensure consistency, security, and transparency.”