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'Election snafu' prompts changes in how Howard County collects results

State and local officials are tweaking their election strategy ahead of November.

Ahead of the November general election, local and state election officials are rethinking their election results strategy after a state-run website shut down as Howard County's election results were being posted during the primary.

The state's live election results page did not display results from all of the county's precincts until around 10 a.m. the day after the April 26 primary. The county was the only jurisdiction in the state to experience the website snag even though local officials submitted all results to the state around midnight, said Natasha Walker, the Maryland State Board of Elections' project manager of election management systems and webmaster.

The state hosts the site, which is operated by Election Systems and Software, a company based in Nebraska. State officials think the website did not show updated results because the utility generating the files was turned off before it could grab the latest election results from the database where local officials feed the election numbers.

Staff usually rely on a time stamp on the files creating content for the website to check the status of the most recent results update. In the primary, the time stamp showed a later time than when the results were actually uploaded, prompting staff to thinking the output file contained the complete results.

"Overall, it was a very successful election for it being our first go," said Walker. "It's a learning curve. We've learned and are now making improvements."

ES&S is still investigating the cause of the problem. In November's election, the state board will manually review the files to see if the output file fully reflects the election results. The state is also looking into ways for the software to prompt users if the output file does not reflect the latest version of the results.

"We want the file time stamp to be as of the results. We're checking to see if that actually occurs," said Walker.

The problem prompted the local elections board to create a county-run results site as a backup to the state's site.

"By November, I'm confident the state will iron the kinks out of it. It was a first and I'm sure they will work out a resolution," said Guy Mickley, election director of the Howard County Board of Elections. "This was a perceived election snafu. The website went down. All the results were in. It is what it is. The first time around, there will be some glitches.

The local elections board is also changing how it pools results from the county's precincts after stagnant updates several hours after polls closed.

"It looked like we were doing nothing," said Mickley. "It was also the last thing I expected."

In the primary, election judges brought memory sticks containing results from the machines to a satellite office. Once half the sticks were gathered, rovers transported the sticks to the county's election office. But in November, the local elections board will send rovers to the precincts to bring memory sticks to the county's local elections office for uploading.

The change should allow results to upload more regularly throughout election night instead of spontaneous data dumps.

Despite the initial slow pace of results updates, the election board had all of its results ready at the same time as the last 12 years, Mickley said.

Overall, state officials say they received few reports of glitches and voter confusion of the new ballot scanners and equipment, despite fears of a shaky debut.

The new voting system implemented throughout the state uses a paper ballot system. In 2014, ES&S won a $28.1 million contract with the state to replace the state's existing touch-screen voting system.

Of the nearly 4,207 new pieces of equipment, the Maryland State Board of Elections replaced 13 scanners and four ballot-marking devices on election Day.

"For the first time something getting used, it went super well. This was a very successful election," said Mickley.

Unlike the state's old electronic equipment, the ballot scanners do not have any internal memory, said Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator for the state's election board. Memory sticks house election data and the paper ballots provide a voter-verifiable backup, providing a clear paper trail of each voter's selections.

Paper ballots and memory sticks travel in two separate cars in order to ensure the backup is available.

Without that backup, "if that car — God forbid — would crash and burn, then the election is gone," said Mickley.

Local election boards' hands are "very tied" in the type of results reports the technology can generate, said Mickley. The election system uses COBOL, a computer programming language designed in 1959 that stands for Common Business Oriented Language.

The programming language drew incredulous responses from the Howard County Council at a budget work session following the primary.

"It's one thing for this to be the snowplow tracker," said Councilman Jon Weinstein. "It's another thing for this to be our election."

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