EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 14, 2006

Machines savetime, but software could save more

By Gordon Fraser

SALEM - Two recent elections have highlighted a decision town officials made when they bought new voting machines last fall - and decided not to buy a $20,000 software package that could have made election night less labor intensive.

"In March, we had, like, four ballots. And you (compile results) for six polling places, and your arms get a little tired at the end of the night," Town Clerk Barbara Lessard said.

After primary polling Tuesday, Acting Town Moderator Christopher Goodnow explained to anxious candidates and others that even after results came in from Salem's six polling places, the computer-counted results had to be compiled by hand and typed into a computer spreadsheet.

That, Lessard said, takes time - especially when there's more than one ballot to count.

Still, she said, the counting is faster than it was with the old machines. Salem bought the new machines - the Accuvote OS - from LHS Associates Inc., a Methuen, Mass., firm, prior to the March election. The six machines cost a total of $37,500.

LHS Associates distributes voting machines throughout New England.

The software Salem didn't buy with the machines could save poll workers some time, but LHS president John Silvestro said it might be a little "overkill" for the town to buy the system.

"The software is really written for counties," he said.

Smaller communities, with only a few polling places, don't face as daunting a task of compiling votes.

In New Hampshire, he said, only Manchester and Nashua purchased the software from his company. Manchester has 12 polling places. Nashua has nine.

Other towns, like Derry with four polling places and Londonderry with one, opted not to buy the extra software, Silvestro said.

Essentially, Silvestro said, the software allows vote information to be saved on small cards - like the memory card in a digital camera. Then, the stored information can be uploaded to a central machine, which compiles the votes. The machine also prints information about how it arrived at its totals, so poll workers can check the numbers.

The machines are not connected along a network, Silvestro said, because that would create concerns about the security of the votes.

Lessard said she welcomed any software that would save her time. Although, she said, Salem's Information Technology Department had cautioned that the software was difficult to operate and might be more trouble than it's worth. A representative from that department could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Still, the town clerk said, the new machines probably save her and the other poll workers as much as 45 minutes each election night - even without the software. The old machines used to reject ballots they couldn't read, forcing pollsters to count them by hand.

With the new machines, "there are so extremely few rejects," Lessard said. "We used to spend at least another half hour, 45 minutes."

On Tuesday, she said, only one or two ballots were rejected.

And no matter what, Lessard said, tallying votes at the end of an election night is tiring stuff, with candidates and reporters waiting, thousands of ballots and not much sleep.

"You have to do this at the end of the night, when you've been up since 5 in the morning," she said.