Voting chief vows no more tabulation glitches in the future

Fayette Elections Supervisor Tom Sawyer demonstrates a vote tabulating computer. Photo/Ben Nelms.

Following the progress of Fayette’s primary election returns as they came in last week was difficult to do.

While the computerized system allows the county to show how many votes have been tabulated at various points during the evening, the computers have also made it impossible to get a clear picture of how many precincts have been tabulated on any given report.

The very first report published on the county’s website showed that all 36 of Fayette’s voting precincts had voted in the election, despite the fact that none of the precincts had yet turned in their votes in-person at the county board of elections office.

That “glitch” was due to the fact that elections officials decided to run the early and advance voting numbers through the system first, said Elections Supervisor Tom Sawyer. Because the early and advance voting included voters from each Fayette precinct, the computer system used that information to report that all 36 of Fayette’s precincts had voted when in fact, they had not, Sawyer explained.

“It was very difficult during the night to tell you where we were in the process, unlike it had been in the past,” Sawyer said.

In the future, the early and absentee votes will be counted last — after all the election day precincts are in — so they don’t throw off the precinct count on each voting report, Sawyer said. In fact, that was the plan for last week, but the elections office kept receiving calls from people wanting results, so the decision was made to post the early and advance voting returns anyway, Sawyer said.

“They were wanting results, so we decided to go ahead and run them (the early and advance voting tallies),” Sawyer said. “That was the decision we made and we probably should not have.”

Sawyer said the legislature last year required counties to begin reporting all early and absentee ballots as part of the precinct in which the voter was eligible to cast their vote. That necessitated a change in the software that led to the precinct reporting glitch, Sawyer said.

Previously, the early, advance and absentee ballots were all calculated as their own separate precinct and thus the percentage of precincts reporting remained true throughout the tabulation process, Sawyer said.

Sawyer said he is very confident in the vote totals being accurate despite the software’s precinct reporting glitch.

“It certainly will be an issue we will address going forward,” Sawyer said, noting that some other counties have also employed a work-around by tabulating the early and advance voting returns last.

On election day, each precinct has to physically hand over the memory cards from each individual voting machine to county elections officials, along with a printout of the results from each individual machine. The memory cards are plugged into a master voting machine that tabulates all the votes in aggregate to compile the final voting totals for the county.

This year, the memory cards for the early and advance voting were plugged in early, well before the first precincts began to appear at elections headquarters with memory cards from their machines.

Preventing the glitch may require going against conventional wisdom, since it stands to reason that if the early and advance voting memory cards are handy, and no other precincts are in yet, they should be processed immediately.

Meanwhile, the holdback on the early voting returns will deprive voters, candidates and other handicappers from attempting to divine any useful information from the early returns as to what is in store for the candidates the remainder of the evening.

But that may be a small price to pay for being able to accurately keep track of how many precincts have been tallied, for its a crucial figure, in particular to candidates who may be trailing slightly but can hold out hope for a rebound in other precincts.