Despite high-tech system, old methods slow election reporting

Georgia has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars on 21st century technology for its election night reporting system, but when those results get posted still depends partially on the evening traffic.

The reporting system, called the ENR system, is designed to allow all of Georgia's 159 counties to post their election results to a central location and let residents view the results and customize their own election reports. But the $230,000 system, which was rolled out for last month's primary, is for reporting, not tabulating.

That function belongs to the counties. And at a time when a teenager can download his favorite band's new album in a matter of seconds, a county poll worker must hit the road on election night to deliver final ballot totals to the main elections office. There, a secure computer is employed to report to the ENR system.

The ENR system is the latest update to the uniform reporting system launched by the Secretary of State's Office in 2002 and included outfitting all Georgia's counties with the same voting equipment.

Georgia follows other states in the region in using the election night reporting system, such as Alabama, where 85 percent of the counties use it. In Alabama, election totals are also delivered by motor vehicle, but it's a county deputy doing the driving.

Uploading county results to the ENR system should only take a few additional minutes, and there were no problems with the system on election night, said Jared Thomas, a spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office.

But even though polls close at 7 p.m., there can be many reasons why the results are posted much later, said Merle King, executive director of the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University, which was established in 2002 to provide support to the state and counties and runs the ENR system. The office's $704,000 budget and eight employees are funded through the Secretary of State's Office.

Many of those reasons manifested themselves during the July 31 primary.

Traditionally early reporting jurisdictions such as Cobb County faced questions after no results appeared on the secretary of state's website until well after 9 p.m. Candidates and residents wondered what was wrong with the process, and snippy emails came into the Cobb elections board asking whether it was counting ballots by hand.

King said tracing the issues back to the county can begin with how each county handles its election night operations. For instance, voters in line at 7 p.m. can slow down the process, King said, because they are allowed to cast ballots even though the polls are officially closed at that time.

Such was the case in Cobb, Elections Director Janine Eveler said. Another half-hour was tacked onto the night when partial results that were being uploaded to the ENR system didn't match what officials expected to see, and the data was rechecked. Also, a longer ballot with more races took more time to scan, which has to be done with each mail-in ballot, Eveler said.

Perhaps the biggest variable is traffic. Most Georgia counties have abandoned a system that required each precinct to send its results to a central county location using a modem, similar to old fax machine technology. Precinct managers now drive the tabulations and memory cards containing election data to the county's central location, usually an election headquarters.

"Somebody says how long does it take to drive from north Fulton to the elections office [in Atlanta], and the answer could be from 40 minutes to two days," King said. "That [modem] provision was put in place because of the unpredictability of traffic. It made sense years ago, but the technology and the expectations of people have evolved beyond that."

In Gwinnett County, precinct managers from the county's 156 precincts drive their results into the main elections office on Grayson Highway in Lawrenceville.

Jay Lieberman, who has worked as a poll worker in Gwinnett since 2008, knows about the drive from his time managing precincts in Dacula. Drive time for him: a nonproblematic 15 minutes.

"In the primary election, it could take an hour before you can leave the precinct to drive [results] in. There are a lot of checks and balances. It's not just close the equipment in your trunk and go," Lieberman said. "It also depends on how efficient your people are, and that's the human aspect you can't control. It's not a bad thing, it's just a people thing."

The situation is even more of an issue in Cobb, where equipment used at the precincts must be driven to a Kennesaw location because there's no room for storage in Marietta, where the voting tabulations on memory cards must be driven. The board is considering having some precincts make one stop in Marietta, with at least a 9 p.m. goal for reporting, Eveler said.

But poll workers also have to drive in Harris County — which encompasses more than 300 square miles — and it was the first county to report its results in July. The county, located on the border with Alabama in Middle Georgia, had its initial numbers come in just 18 minutes after the polls closed.

Elections Director Sherrail Jarrett said frequent and partial uploads help prevent reporting delays. In July, the last precinct dropped off results about 8:45 p.m., and Jarrett went home at 10 p.m.

Other problems can include tallying voter certificates and counting absentee ballots, including mailed ballots that must be scanned. Some counties do the work throughout the day, while others wait until polls close.

To shave time off the local end of the elections results process, Cobb, for example, is considering changing its policies by doing more partial uploads from early voting and in-person voting machines.

But even if all those intangibles go smoothly, there can still be problems such as those in Fulton County, where numerous mistakes have led to a state investigation; or Floyd County, where 85 uncounted votes were stuck in a malfunctioning voting machine.

"Underneath [the new ENR system] there are 159 individual elections going on with hundreds of thousands of moving parts, and all that has to be orchestrated into a very narrow period of time to collect that data and push it out," King said. "So these things are not trivial to put together."