Voters were missing something when they showed up at the polls Tuesday in the town of Milford: The alphabet.
For the first time in memory the polling stations in the middle school gymnasium lacked signs directing voters to a specific clerk depending on the first letter of the voter’s last name. Due to the town’s test of what are known as electronic polling books, it was first-come, first-served for all six clerks.
Peter Basiliere, moderator for this town of 15,000 along the Souhegan River, pointed out the advantage: Much less waiting to check in.
“The most common letter for last names in town is B. We get long lines of people waiting to check in there, and the ‘A’ desk would be empty,” he said.
The alphabet was missing from the work the clerks did, too. Instead of flipping through a thick paper book listing every registered voter and then crossing out the name with a black or red pen depending on status, using a ruler to keep the line straight as required by state protocol, they typed the voters’ name into the search engine on a laptop computer.
The time saving is even greater at the end of Election Day, Basiliere said. “There’s a tremendous amount of work to do after polls close – hours and hours of work, trying to reconcile paper books. That’s much faster.”
Speed isn’t the only reason some town clerks want to switch from paper to electronic check-in for voters. Accuracy is another.
“Every election we have (polling) clerks, no matter how good they are, who will cross off the wrong person, or who didn’t write down a change of party, or something like that,” Basiliere said. A well-designed computer interface can reduce those problems, he said.
New Hampshire plans to let towns and cities buy computer-based systems for checking in voters, keeping track of absentee ballots and handling same-day voter registration, something that’s done in more than 30 other states. A law to allow the tech upgrade was approved by the Legislature last year and the Secretary of State’s office is overseeing tests of several companies that make systems.
Systems would probably cost from $1,000 to $1,500 per station, more if high-speed printers are used. Milford has had as many as 14 check-in stations for busy elections like presidential primaries, although presumably fewer electronic stations would be needed because they are faster.
This project does not include electronic systems to count ballots, only to check in voters and keep track of checklists. The state is also looking at new ballot-counting technologies because the AccuVote machines currently used are so old that they’re not being made any more.
Milford was testing a system from Electec Election Services of New Jersey.
Tests were also run Tuesday in Londonderry with a different manufacturer, Poll Pads. Other systems have previously been tested in Rochester and Bedford.
“I’m cautious, I like to take things in baby steps, but there is no need to do that with this,” said Sherry Farrell, town clerk in Londonderry. “Seldom in life do you find something where everyone can agree but this was one of those times.”
“It wasn’t just younger people, our poll workers – many are 60 and older – and voters 70, 80 (years old), liked the simplicity,” she said. “One woman, probably close to 70, said she debated coming in to vote because she’s tired of waiting in lines … she said, having this was almost like a prayer was answered, it was so quick.”
The consulting firm Cyberscout is overseeing the tests and will report to the Secretary of State’s office, which will have to certify systems as being suitable for New Hampshire elections before towns can use them. It’s not clear how long that might take.
“You have to process all of that and do it in a disciplined way,” said Assistant Secretary of State Anthony Stevens, who was in Milford for Tuesday’s test.
In Milford, the six laptops were networked together for the test, so when a voter checked in to one station it was obvious to all stations, but they were not hooked into the Internet for security reasons. The town also had human clerks double-checking voter registration with paper books the old-fashioned way, as a backup in case things went wrong.
Town Clerk Joan Dargie cited other advantages of going digital, including quick access to information.
“We can get instant numbers on absentee ballots, challenged voter affidavits, change of address, same day registration, out-of-state licenses,” she said, ticking off items.
Lori Radke, town clerk of Bedford, said a test last year on an electronic check-in system from Missouri-based Knowink demonstrated that speed: “The polls closed at 7 p.m. By 7:02 I know how many voters had checked in.”
And as for one other common concern, about volunteers having to deal with technical complexity, Dargie said not to worry.
“The clerks all trained easily – even our 80-year-olds,” she said.