12 Jul Cities unsure about voter registration software
Madison, Wis. – In a perfect world, an electronic voter registration database would help safeguard Wisconsin against the controversial dilemma that Florida faced after the 2000 presidential election, but implementation of such a database across the state has proved problematic and deployment remains incomplete.
And the clock is ticking.
The Web-based, statewide voter registration system (SVRS) mandated by Section 303 of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 was supposed to be utilized in many Wisconsin cities during two busy forthcoming elections, but it appears to be working better in some than in others.
As the Wisconsin Elections Board works to mend the kinks in the SVRS project, missed deadlines, recurring delays and escalating costs have intensified criticisms leveled against Executive Director Kevin Kennedy and the contractor he hired to install the system, software developer Accenture.
The Sept. 12 partisan primaries and the Nov. 7 general elections are expected to draw large numbers of voters because of races for governor, attorney general, eight Congressional seats, a U.S. Senate seat, and a host of State Assembly and State Senate seats.
An unfinished voter list potentially could hinder county and municipal elections officials who have only two months to make adjustments before residents begin voting.
One community – Madison – already is making alternative plans because of the Accenture system’s slow response time and inability to process absentee ballots. The city plans to maintain its former voter registration system as a backup and hire six additional temporary employees to help process voter registration applications on the new system.
What about the rest of the state?
WTN media contacted selected municipalities to determine if the Madison experience is being felt everywhere. Although city election officials in contacted cities reported problems, all said they will be ready to hold elections despite complications posed by imperfect SVRS processes, and the operation of parallel registration systems.
Accenture’s software has processed voter registration applications much faster in Milwaukee, a city that has seen its share of sloppy data entry and allegations of fraud, including hundreds of votes cast from invalid addresses, in the 2004 presidential election.
Milwaukee went live with SVRS on June 27. Susan Edman, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, said the problems experienced in 2004 were attributable to bookkeeping errors. High turnout strained poll workers struggling to report poll numbers from the city’s 314 wards.
“People were so overwhelmed by the high turnout that their numbers weren’t reconciled,” Edman said. “I think some of them just threw in the towel.”
Edman is working to tighten polling sites and demand record accuracy to ensure that human mistakes do not recur. Meanwhile, the city staff is working to differentiate absentee ballot labels for hospitalized voters and nursing home residents and print poll lists.
“They built a Mercedes,” Edman said of SVRS. “It’s just not working at 100 percent yet. There are things that need to be worked out.”
Green Bay, a city with approximately 50,000 registered voters, currently relies on its previous registration system because it has not gone live on SVRS. Members of its city clerk staff have received training on SVRS over the past few weeks.
Deputy City Clerk Anita Raleigh trained with SVRS on June 12 and said, “There were a lot of things that needed to be corrected.”
For instance, a voter whose last name is “Van Rooy” would appear as “Rooy” in the system, Raleigh said. SVRS was slow in responding to Raleigh and approximately 12 of her co-workers as they tried to clean up files in the system, and it also had problems downloading some Social Security numbers and drivers license information.
Additionally, a 600-person absentee ballot file did not convert, which means the city will have to carry two systems to distribute absentee ballots.
“It was very discouraging,” she said. “It was somewhat better the following week, but not real good.”
The Wisconsin Elections Board will call every once in a while to say they are working on it, Raleigh added. “It’s kind of a wait-and-see thing.”
The City of Appleton, with over 42,000 registered voters, reported fewer problems but processing absentee ballots remains an issue.
Appleton went live with SVRS on June 26, following its most recent software update. An employee in the city clerk’s office familiar with the completed staff training process declined to provide her name, but said that Appleton successfully completed transferal of existing voter information onto SVRS, and is working to maintain and update that list.
It is unclear how successfully SVRS will processes additional voter registrations in Appleton.
“We’re still in the learning process,” she said. “Compared to our past system, sometimes looking up people may be a little slower, but it is not as horrid as stories I’ve heard.”
Because the system does not have the capability to process absentee ballots, the city is operating its old system as a backup.
“Running two systems is not an easy thing, so it’s more time consuming than it used to be,” she said. “I would like to get to the point where it’s saving me time.”
La Crosse, with almost 33,000 registered voters, went live in the middle of June, said city clerk Teri Lehrke. Registration data was converted and half the city clerk’s office staff requires SVRS training.
The SVRS application training took four days and was quite thorough, she said, but training on the absentee ballot portion of the system is not as smooth. “We don’t even know at this point what works and what doesn’t work in the SVRS because we haven’t been on it long enough,” Lehrke said. “There was very little training, and we don’t know what all it can do.”
Lehrke said that the city is running parallel systems to manage absentee ballots, which is going to be tough in a busy election year. She and her staff are updating street ranges and working on data cleanup.
“Clean up takes an awful long time because it has to go through the scheduler,” Lehrke said. “Our data looked pretty good. I was pleasantly surprised about that.”
System implementation is an ambitious undertaking for Wisconsin. Synchronizing data between numerous state agencies and thousands of municipalities to maintain an accurate record of a voting population that is constantly in flux represents a host of administrative and technical challenges. These challenges have forced the project to develop piecemeal.
SVRS must process additions and modifications to voter records, and generate reports such as poll lists and election statistics by integrating with state agency databases.
HAVA has called on the Wisconsin Elections Board to work with the Division of Motor Vehicles (now part of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation) for address change information, the Department of Health and Family Services for information on voter deaths, and the Department of Corrections and the Department of Justice for information on the status of convicted felons.
To complicate matters, Wisconsin has no pre-existing structure for dealing electronically with the registration information of the 1,850 municipal and 72 county election centers.
Like other states facing similar complexities, Wisconsin failed to meet its federally mandated Jan. 1, 2006 deadline.
Running Costs and Recurring Delays
The costs of installing SVRS increased $230,000 last week, but Accenture – a company that lost similar contracts in Colorado, Kansas, and Wyoming for falling behind schedule – has asked for $259,000 more to handle data conversion issues associated with the complex state election system, a sum the board unanimously refused to pay.
The $230,000 will pay for more for laptop computers and training for elections staff across the state.
These costs will be absorbed by $50.4 million in federal HAVA funds the Elections Board has already received. Accenture reported that it would resolve the data conversion issues to provide for the “widest possible use” by the September primaries, but that has not ameliorated the dismay of several state officials.
Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, and Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, recently asked the Legislative Fiscal Bureau and the Legislative Audit Bureau to review options for relieving Kennedy of his responsibility for the voter database.
• Auditors outline what they want to know about state IT projects
• Legislators want audit of state IT excess
• Byron Glick: Technology and democracy