The challenge of fast, accurate election returns

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KRMG's Joe Kelley was frustrated at the slow rate at which Tuesday night's City of Tulsa election results were available to the public. You can't find live results on the Tulsa County Election Board website. For state elections, the Oklahoma State Election Board does provide live results, updated periodically. Many other states provide live results from the local to the state level, often in great detail (e.g. presidential election results by county in Florida).

At 8 p.m. last Tuesday, Kelley fired off an e-mail to the Tulsa County Commissioners. Kelley has posted his e-mail and the reply from county and state election officials on his KRMG Morning News blog.

District 3 Commissioner Fred Perry replied to Kelley's e-mail, and Kelley clarified his concern:

My issue is not at all with the means of voting.

Instead, it's with the method the Election Board distributes the election results. In the high-tech, super-fast information era, that the Election Board website does not offer REAL TIME election results with embeddable applications, is just beyond belief. I have not spoken up sooner because I have just assumed that the technology was just moments away. Yet, I'm starting to realize I should have not made that assumption....

I'm not sure if the Election Board has noticed that we no longer send a reporter there on Election Day. In fact, I'm not aware of any reporters who do this. Instead, we have all found a way to work around the Election Board. Now, we send runners to the precincts and manually gather the info ourselves. Instead of utilizing the Election Board, KOTV and the other TV stations have gone out and bought software programs to circumvent the Election Board in compiling vote counts.

Kelley goes on to explain that local media outlets use runners to grab the results that are posted on the polling place doors shortly after the polls close, rather than waiting for the county election board to provide numbers. He points to Dallas County, Texas, and that election board's capability to provide real-time results.

Kelley gets replies from Shelley Boggs, Assistant Secretary of the Tulsa County Election Board, and Paul Ziriax, Secretary of the Oklahoma State Election Board, explaining the hardware currently in use, when it was put into service (procured in the late '80s, in service statewide for the 1992 election), how the statewide live returns are provided, and when a new statewide election computer system will be in place. From Boggs's reply:

The State Election Board is able to post statewide election returns over their website in state races by collecting date by modem from all County Election Boards. The state then goes through a very cumbersome process to connect the Vax system to a PC in order to connect this to their Internet site. Under the state's direction, the county offices do not have this hardware to allow the connectivity. It is my understanding the State Election Board does not want any hardware or software connected to their election system for security reasons. Unfortunately, the state does not provide election result compilation for local elections, only state elections.

Some further observations from my experience with state and county election results.

When I've requested results of past elections by precinct from the State Election Board, they send a CD with a bunch of PDF files. The PDFs are of the printouts from the election board computers. These printouts are formatted for printing on a band printer on greenbar paper, so they have page headers and footers, and it takes some extra programming and manual steps on my part to turn those into something I can put in a spreadsheet or database.

You can't even get that much from the county election board, which is the only source for municipal and school board results. For those, I've had to enter all the numbers manually from their printouts.

Tulsa County Election Board staffers have always been very helpful, patient, and accommodating when I've come in in search of past results.

On election night, it will always be faster to use runners than to wait for the election board's results. The poll workers have several minutes cleanup to do after they post the tape. They they have to take the ballot boxes and the tabulation card from the machine down to election board HQ. The process of getting the materials from poll worker's car into the building and into the computer takes even more time.

For the 2006 city primary, I went down to the election board to try to find out the numbers they had and which precincts had reported already, to get a sense of whether the early returns were from LaFortune's midtown stronghold or from the areas where Medlock was expected to do well. Gene Pace, the Election Board Secretary at the time, graciously let me sit at a terminal in his office, but all it could tell me were the totals -- not individual precinct numbers or which precincts were already in.

Often campaigns will have their own runners to grab the results. In 2002, when I last ran for office, I had campaign volunteers phone in results from one or two precincts nearest them before heading to the party. I personally walked across Cherry Street from the site of our watch party -- a house on Cherry Street that had previously housed a candle shop, where the Genghis Grill is now -- to the Precinct 48 polling place at Marquette School to get that result.

The TV stations had their own runners. While KOTV had me leading most of the night, I knew from the numbers being phoned in that I was on my way to defeat. As a result, my friends were having a much better time at the watch party than I was. I suspect that my evanescent lead on KOTV was the result of one or more transposition errors, either by runners reading numbers, call takers writing down the numbers from the runners, or data entry people typing them into the computer.

Chris Medlock noticed a similar anomaly from this year's primary.
On Wednesday, he and his wife were watching a TV show he had DVRed the night before. He noticed that the results on KJRH's coverage had him going backwards by 1,396 votes from one update to the next. More than likely, a data entry error (a couple of extra zeroes) was corrected. Bartlett's numbers went up between those two updates, but not by as much as you'd expect with an additional 15% of precincts reporting.

Last Tuesday, when results seemed slow coming in, I phoned a couple of council candidates to see if their runners had anything to report. Neither one was using runners and didn't know any more about results than I did. I suspect that they chose to enjoy a happy hour of food, drink, and the company of their friends and volunteers before they had to confront the results, good or bad.

Because I was in the KRMG newsroom with news director Dan Potter on primary night, I didn't have access to the individual precinct results that were being phoned in by KRMG/KOTV runners to the KOTV newsroom. This made it hard to tell, early on, whether the mayoral returns indicated a race that was truly too close to call. One of my Twitter pals responded to my last-minute appeal to "tweet the vote," sending in returns from two District 7 precincts; and Steven Roemerman texted me with a couple of precincts. The percentage of precincts reporting in each council district gave me a rough approximation of where in the city the returns were coming from, but I couldn't do a direct comparison to the same precincts four years earlier.

We won't have real-time returns anytime soon. Here's my dream for the general election in November -- Tulsa Twitterers would visit their local polling place and maybe one or two others and tweet the results. A web app would use the Twitter API to grab the relevant tweets, parse them into precinct results, and show the totals from the same precincts from the 2006 mayoral election and the 2004 state senate election.

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Paul said:

I thought the results came in fairly quickly.

After 7pm, I looked at Channel 6's website, refreshing the election results page from time to time. Also, I listened a bit to KFAQ and KRMG, and it didn't seem very long to me before most of the races were called. I enjoyed your on air comments, BTW.

Will Buthod said:

Count me in (again). I think your idea benefits the community by adding transparency.

I downloaded a precinct map [] and a list of polling places [] and realize now that had I planned ahead, I could easily have gathered several precincts in half an hour.

I also wonder if twitter is really the easiest and most resilient way to get things done. It provides the opportunity for pranksters to tweet false information. This last election, I played with taking photos of the tape with a camera phone. I thought that - if of adequate resolution - it could remove transcription errors in the field. The results were excellent for pct 125, but lousy for 130, which I blame on a darkening sky and the inability to use a flash on window.
* A web form tailored to the ballot of each precinct/district, simple enough in layout for a typical phone-based browser, could produce results in a standard format and be entered directly into whatever number munging tools you want. If the posting of election results on Twitter are thought useful, it's easy enough to use the API in the other direction; have the form-driven web collection point tweet the incoming data, as well as periodic aggregate numbers, all under a single ID that could be considered 'trustworthy', though not authoritative. I'm about a decade out of my CGI programming days, but I'd be willing to help in any way I can.

XonOFF said:

I'm all for whatever gives results. Having to pay to get precinct information weeks later, in an almost useless format, is absolutely unacceptable, especially in this age.

What would it take to get the County Election Board to allow a volunteer to park themselves immediately adjacent to the County employee entering Precinct data into their system as it comes in, then entering it into a web-based form at the same time?

Sure, it would be "unofficial", I'm sure. But, could be confirmed and validated over the next few days as necessary.

Thanks, Paul, for the kind remarks, and thanks, Will, for your offer of help. You make a good point about authentication and the potential for mischief. As for taking photos, by November the problem will be even worse -- no ambient light and varying amounts of interior back lighting. I like the idea of a web form.

XonOFF, the problem is that the county employee doesn't manually enter the data. It comes in as a datapack, and it gets transferred directly into the computer system. The only precinct tapes you see at the election board are those from the machines on site that process absentee ballots.

Mike said:

Two simple points Michael for your consideration:

1. The Precinct Inspector could be required to call the precinct's totals to a "phone bank". Each Inspector is issued a phone to conduct precinct business. As long as there were people to receive the calls in a timely fashion, I for one would not be opposed to take another minute or two to phone my results "in". By 7:15 to 7:30, 99% of all precincts results would be known, unofficially, of course.

2. Alternatively or in addition, the Precinct Inspector could print off an additional Precinct Totals Tape (at the precinct) and hand it off to a "runner" downtown as we turn in our ballots and equipment.

XonOFF said:

In your first comment, you spoke of the Precinct person having to run a tape, and then take it downtown to E-Bd Hdqtrs. A copy of the same sheet they post on the window at the polling place would be sufficient. If there were a volunteer there to which that could be handed at the same time, that would solve the issue.

The volunteer could either phone it into someone who enters into a webform, or enter it directly into a webform right on site.

And, they'd have a sheet log back up to varify typo type errors on data entry, and for further analysis beyond the totals.

Actually, truth be known, the Election Board should be doing all this and posting virtually the entire raw data set online for public scrutiny.

To say they can't is simply expressing a lack of will.

Thanks for weighing in with those ideas, Mike. Sounds like you might have some experience working the polls.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on September 13, 2009 6:59 PM.

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