The first votes in New Haven’s mayoral and aldermanic elections have already been counted. But a machine counted them, not human hands. So, unlike in the recent past, the data won’t be available until late Tuesday night.
The scene at the Hall of Records on Tuesday, primary election day, posed a conundrum straight out of the movie Zoolander: the numbers are in the computer. But how to get them out?
Since 2007, New Haven has used optical scanning machines, manufactured by LHS Associates, to tally votes cast across the city, according to Democratic Registrar of Voters Susan Ferrucci. The technology, comparable to that used to read standardized test answers and lottery tickets, creates a reliable paper trail and saves human labor.
Before 2007, Ferrucci’s crew tallied absentee ballots by hand mid-day on primary day. They would then have a total of votes per candidate up to that point. Those totals would be made available to campaigns. (Absentee ballots arriving later would be counted later that night after the polls closed.)
Now, at noon on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, Ferrucci’s crews were using the LHS machines. They were feeding absentee ballots into the scanners. But they weren’t tallying the numbers. And they would have no numbers to report to anyone until long after the polls close Tuesday night.
That’s because the machines can only spit out a set of numbers once in their election lifespan, said Nancy Kennedy, administrative assistant to LHS Associates President Jeff Sylvestro.
That is to say, at 11 p.m. or midnight, after all late-arriving absentee ballots are fed into the machines, the absentee ballot scanners will spew a paper strip with final numbers crunched. Until then, candidates and the public remain in the dark.
Could the machines be run twice in a row? “The scanners don’t like that. It’s really crummy software,” said Head Election Monitor Jonathan Einhorn, a former Westville alderman.
A total of 692 absentee ballots had been delivered to the Hall of Records by noon Tuesday. City workers expected an additional 400 or to come in by the end of the day, said absentee ballot moderator Frank Del Vecchio.
While the initial near-700 were processed by approximately 2 p.m., the remaining lot would have to be checked against the day’s voting records, to ensure individuals don’t double-vote by having their preference recorded both in person and by absentee ballot.
Implemented under Connecticut Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, after a pilot program in 25 cities in 2006, the current software prevents talliers from providing valuable early- or mid-day preliminary counts that once helped campaigns determine whether last-ditch get-out-the-vote efforts would be needed to try to change the tides.
“It’s an important strategic advantage to know how you’re doing in the middle of the day,” said Einhorn, who recalled when absentee ballots were counted by people instead of robots—giving candidates the chance to better know where they stood in the afternoon.
Some Connecticut municipalities do run multiple counts during the day, giving the public raw preliminary numbers, according to Secretary of the State spokesman Av Harris. Harris said they do so by running a different machine for each count, rather than running a single scanner multiple times. And additional tech costs the city.
“In New Haven, counting is already more expensive than it has to be because of all our polling places. We have the most in the state,” said Einhorn. Ferrucci confirmed the stat.
Harris claimed that early data on absentee voters is not all that useful.
“Absentee ballot numbers are different from [exit polls]. Exit polls are about people going to the polling place on the day of the election. Absentee ballots are ballots that have come in any time over the past month. It’s not the same universe of people,” said Harris. “If you are going to use an absentee ballot as an exit poll, I wouldn’t use it as a reliable number for the day.”
Said Harris: “The administrator’s responsibility is to administer an election. It’s not to help the candidates. And I’m not sure how [early numbers] help the voters.”
Ferrucci said that some of the city aldermanic races can be so close that absentee ballots might make up the margin of victory.
At least two candidates were hungry for any information about where they stood Tuesday afternoon: Downtown/Ward 7 Alderman Doug Hausladen and challenger Ella Wood, both of whom were set up outside the Hall of Records (their polling place) with coffee, rations, and respective rotating orbits of supporters. Each said they were curious about any numbers available on votes cast—absentee or otherwise.
Often a sleepy ward, it was hopping Tuesday: by noon the number of voters had already exceeded the total number who cast ballots in the 2011 election. Vote-pullers associated with Yale’s UNITE HERE Local 34 and 35 unions were out in force supporting Wood.