Election reporting proposal meets resistance from town clerks who prefer to work with the Associated Press

Secretary of State Jim Condos. Photo by Nat Rudarakanchana

Secretary of State Jim Condos. VTD Photo/Nat Rudarakanchana

Jim Condos, the Vermont Secretary of State, wants to make unofficial election results available more quickly to the media and the public.

Condos says he will ask lawmakers to consider legislation requiring town clerks to report uncertified ballot totals on the Secretary of State’s website in 2014. The provision would be part of a housekeeping bill he plans to propose in January.

“We’re trying to provide a service for Vermonters, the general public, the media, candidates, and parties to access clear concise information with regard to the totals,” Condos said. “This is not about me, it’s not about the clerks, this is about getting information to the public.”

On primary night the secretary asked clerks to use a trial program for reporting unofficial results. About 70 percent of towns voluntarily uploaded vote counts to the Secretary of State’s website. That percentage went up to 77 percent the next day, but six days later, the website results have not been updated.

The tightest race on the ballot — between TJ Donovan and Bill Sorrell, for the Democratic race for Vermont Attorney General — was called the day after the primary, based on results the Associated Press obtained from town clerks.

The election night reporting mandate would not change the deadline for certified results, Condos said. Official ballot counts from towns are due 72 hours from election day. Official results from the Secretary of State’s office must be released to the public within 7 days under statute.

“The only people who end up clamoring for results are the media,” Horn said.

Reporting to the state website on Election Day could also spell doom for an important source of funds for clerks. Town clerks say the state’s trial run of the system on primary night was a glitch-filled experience; in many cases clerks had trouble entering data into the system.

Ninety-nine percent of town clerks sent results to the Associated Press by the day after the primary. The news service will pay $2,600 to the Vermont Municipal Clerks and Treasurers’ Association, or about $10 for each participating town clerk, according to a muninet listserve posting from Sandra Pinsonault, the chair of the association and town clerk for the town of Dorset. The news service has paid the association $5,200 so far this year for the presidential primary in March and the statewide primary on Aug. 28, she said. The group stands to gain another $2,600 in November. The association uses the money to pay for training.

The Associated Press has a “simple, concise and quick” reporting system, Pinsonault says. The news service simply asks clerks to scan and email forms.

“I would hate this mandatory reporting to take the place of reporting to the AP,” Pinsonault said. “It’s a great way for us to get money for our association since we get nothing from the Secretary of State. Why does the state need it? Are they going to report to all the newspapers?”

Karen Horn, a government relations official with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, echoed that sentiment.

“The only people who end up clamoring for results are the media,” Horn said. “We haven’t had a lot of requests from other groups for that information.”

Rep. Donna Sweaney, the chair of the House Government Operations Committee, favors legislation requiring clerks to report on election night. She says a bill introduced last year that would have required towns with 1,000 or more voters to use a tabulator would go a long toward accelerating the count. “Waiting for days,” to get results, she said, “is not very helpful for the process.”

“We’re trying to make it easy,” Condos said. “We want to work with clerks to make the system work to their advantage.”

“Why couldn’t you have both (the AP and the Secretary of State results)?” she asked. “The Secretary of State is going to finalize it anyway.”

Pinsonault says the new system isn’t ready for prime time. Some clerks who used the program to post results posted the numbers only to find the information was lost when the system “timed out.” Making the reporting mandatory should be put off, Pinsonault said, until the system can handle 251 towns within a couple of hours — without technical glitches.

Horn says the primary is a small sampling of the overall voting population in Vermont, and any problems will be magnified during the General Election. The Secretary of State website’s unofficial tally on election night also doesn’t take into account absentee ballots or write-in candidates, she said.

“We’re not sure you would get most accurate picture the night of the election,” Horn said.

Condos says he plans to address the glitches in the election reporting system before the General Election on Nov. 6.

“We’re trying to make it easy,” Condos said. “We want to work with clerks to make the system work to their advantage.”

Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is lack of Internet access, and that could hurt plans not only for voluntary reporting on election night and dash Condos’ ultimate goal to implement an electronic filing system.

Linda Martin, another representative on the Government Operations Committee and the town clerk of Wolcott, says she was personally frustrated on Tuesday night that she couldn’t get better election results on the secretary’s website, but many town offices in the rural parts of the state, she said, aren’t wired to the web and that complicates the secretary’s effort.

Getting town clerks hooked up to the Internet would certainly have to be a priority if the state moves toward an electronic filing system of certified results as well. Condos says such a system would save money and time for clerks and the Secretary of State’s office. Currently, Condos said, the state spends $12.95 each to overnight the tallies to the secretary’s office, at a total cost of $3,185 for each election.

Correction: Due to a math error, the total cost for ballot mailings was originally overestimated. Many thanks to an alert reader who caught the mistake and gave us a heads-up through our Report an Error form. Also, several clerks reported that the state picks up the cost of postage.

Anne Galloway

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9 Comments on "Election reporting proposal meets resistance from town clerks who prefer to work with the Associated Press"

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Eric Davis
3 years 11 months ago
On general election night in November 2010, the Vermont AP provided town-by-town results which were accessible through national news organizations’ Websites. I used the CNN Web site to get access to the town-by-town results being reported by the AP, and had a sense throughout the evening of which towns had reported and which towns were still out. In some instances, other Vermont news organizations, such as VPR and WCAX, had results from a few towns before the AP posted them to the Web. There were other towns where bloggers posted results to sites such as Green Mountain Daily before the… Read more »
Randy Koch
3 years 11 months ago

There seems to be an inconsistency in the story. On the one hand, it says “the biggest problem is lack of internet access” preventing the clerks emailing results to the Sec of State. On the other hand, it says that the clerks are paid by AP to scan and email results.

If a few towns still don’t have internet, couldn’t they just phone in the results to the Sec of State?

3 years 11 months ago
Of all the issues with our voting system, immediate gratification is the least of them that should be dealt with. We can all wait several days for the final tally. The legislature should instead spend some time figuring out how to make ballots available to the public instead of having them destroyed without review after five (??) years. That way we could ascertain that the reported results from previous years was indeed valid, and we can ascertain that black box counters such as the machines being encouraged by Representative Sweany (see above). Immediacy is not a need of elections –… Read more »
timothy price
3 years 11 months ago
“there were a few instances of numbers being transposed or otherwise incorrectly reported when the vote-counters in towns that used paper ballots added up numbers from individual ballot piles on the summary tally sheets. ” The election of 2006 shows a classic example of “crises, reaction, solution” in action. *The crises: the discovery through the recount process revealing substantial voting errors. *The reaction: from the Secretary of State’s voting department, “Oh, we see why, it was just a poorly designed tally sheet. Simple. *The solution: The state promotes the use of voting machines rather than hand counting. There were, I… Read more »
Larry Townsend
3 years 11 months ago

Before we agree to mandate town clerks to report uncertified ballot totals to the Secretary of State’s website, we need to ensure ALL town clerks have the same foolproof method to report the CORRECT results!The State of Vermont has millions in unused HAVA funds that would be appropriate to be used in this effort. Have we all already forgotten the National Election of 2000 where in the race to be first, the National News Agencies reported incorrect results more then once?

George Cross
3 years 11 months ago

Something is wrong with this picture. How is it that the Town/City Clerks have a legal right to sell public domain data to the company of their choice? Who determined the value of this data? How does the public know if the price is right? Under what public law does the Clerks’ association benefit from the sale of voting results and not the taxpayers? Are the clerks free to report voting results in any ol’ way they would like?

kevin ellis
3 years 11 months ago

Hmmm. Secretary of State crossing the town clerks. See Don Hooper immediately.

Frank davis
3 years 11 months ago
First, I believe that Ms. Horn is, or ought to be, wrong about absentee ballots not being counted when voting is concluded. Those ballots should have been included during election day and counted with the ballots voted that day. Even including what is usually a paltry number of write in ballots should be no significant burden for poll officials. Accuracy of results is paramount but prompt access is also important to the public. Electronic communications of the results, both preliminary and certified, is going to happen. Let us do what it takes to have it sooner than later. HAVA funding… Read more »
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