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.

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Anne Galloway

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  • Eric Davis

    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 AP posted those results.

    Both the Shumlin and Dubie campaigns, as well as the media and citizens, had a pretty good sense of what towns were in and what towns were out between 11:00 pm and midnight. The final town results came in overnight, or early in the morning, and Dubie made his concession speech on the morning after the election.

    For the Vermont presidential primary in March 2012, the AP again provided town-by-town results to national news organizations. On election night, I followed the AP’s town-by-town results for the GOP presidential primary on CNN’s Web site.

    For the state primary on August 28, as far as I can determine, the AP reported only aggregate, not town-by-town results. Thus, as noted in the article, the Donovan and Sorrell campaigns did not know which towns were in and which towns were out. Perhaps the AP had the town-by-town information on some internal site, but it was not available on a public site. The national news organizations, which are interested in the general election and the presidential primaries, generally do not provide real-time election night coverage of state primary elections on their Web sites.

    If a bill to require town clerks to report their results to the Secretary of State’s site on election night is not enacted in the 2013-14 biennium, the AP should make town-by-town results available on a publicly accessible Web site for the next state primary in August 2014. If the AP is paying the clerks’ association for what is, in effect, public information, the election results on a town-by-town basis should be made available by the AP on state primary nights, as well as presidential primary and general election nights.

    Finally, it’s important to remember that the numbers reported on election night are unofficial and could contain errors. If my memory serves me correctly, back in 2006, in the Salmon-Brock auditor’s race that ended up being won by Salmon on a recount, 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. These errors caused incorrect results to be reported on election night.

  • Randy Koch

    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?

  • 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 – accuracy is.

    Oh, and we could also spend some time at the national level defining voting as a right and start going after election fraud (instead of the virtually non-existent voter fraud).

  • timothy price

    “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 believe, 15 town that were found to have made substantial voting errors in the 2006 election. I had asked that the BCA in our town be allowed to examine the tally sheets and ballots, but though the case was before the court, and the Judge had provided that the election materials could be obtained through the formal request for a public record, the town destroyed the ballots being requested.

    The results of this is, that why the totals were reported in error is unknown. There have been those who have said that it was a poorly designed tally sheet that caused the totals for each candidate to be entered into the wrong column, attributing the total to the incorrect candidate; regarding the miscounted race, ( the only race that was discovered and recounted), the cause has been attributed, not to intentional manipulation of the totals, but an understandable accident in transferring numbers to the wrong column.

    Without having been allowed access to the ballots and tally sheets from the 2006 election to actually see for ourselves, the voters are left with the officials who may have caused the false reporting, telling us that it was only a technical error, not to worry. But they destroyed the ballots so we could not see this for ourselves, even though the court having jurisdiction had provided that we could.

    This has never felt right. There is no such thing as “trust” when you are trying to detect why substantial errors are made in reporting the election. There is only verification by actually seeing what happened. The Supreme Court of Vermont has agreed. The government, at all times, must be accountable to the people, and the review of the records produced in their official duty are public records, and are accessible by request.

    I don’t know why elections totals are not reported correctly. Anytime an election produces a less than 2% difference between candidates, I think a recount should be mandatory. It is just too easy to find ways to influence the count 2% without calling attention to how it was done.

    Sometimes it might be quite important to some that there not be a change in a certain office that is being challenged by another candidate. If the vote totals can be falsely reported, there probably will be those who will try, especially if there is a tradition of not showing the records for review.
    Therefore, it is only prudent that any such manipulation of the voter’s intent by officials be discovered, or the report given a clean bill of health.

    The amount of money in elections today could be a powerful reward for an official in a position to successfully report the wrong total in any race. Mandatory (citizen requested) recounts would be a serious deterrent and/or finder of wrong doing.

    The media today is used primarily to motivate the public in whatever direction TPTB want them to go. As for reporting the elections by AP or any other media… I have no confidence in in them to be impartial, and would be expected to exert influence in whatever way they might through election night reporting. This is just my opinion.

  • Larry Townsend

    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

    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

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

  • Frank davis

    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 could be put to no better use. If the wire services or other press outlets are willing to pay then give them a two hour head start to the public’s access to the Secretary’s result website for $2500 and turn the proceeds over to the Vermont Municipal Clerks and Treasurers’ Association .