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February 19, 2009

Can Burlington Pull Off an Error-Free Election?

Let’s face it, Burlington has had its share of problems since longtime elections chief Jo LaMarche left the city to take a job as the Addison County Clerk, and many wonder if the current team is really up to the task of pulling off an error-free election in the state's largest city.

Last May, city Democrats hauled Chief Administrative Officer Jonathan Leopold and his assistant Ben Pacy into court. The issue was whether a ballot box was improperly unsealed during the recount of a New North End council race. Pacy was cleared of any wrongdoing, but it cast a pall over whether the city could run an election. Since then, Burlington had a statewide primary where not enough ballots were ordered for one ward, and then on November 4 they incorrectly reported vote tallies on election eve, which caused confusion in a key county senate race. And, results were handed out to the public several hours later than in any previous election.

Now comes word that election workers were given bad info about how voting machines would be set up. During a training last week, Pacy told election workers that ballot machines would be calibrated at City Hall and elected election officials would not be allowed to create printouts at the polling site proving the machines were clear of ballots. That has been the standard in past elections, LaMarche confirmed with Blurt, the Seven Days staff blog.

That didn’t sit well with Ward 6 election official Owen Mulligan. Elected election officials — not city employees and consultants — should ensure ballot boxes are clear of any ballots, he argues. And, rightly so.

Mulligan contacted Seven Days, and subsequently his note to us ended up on Jay Vos' blog Blazing Indiscretions, where it stirred up some interesting comments. Haik Bedrosian of BurlingtonPol chimed in, and posted a diary on his site, "IRV and Election Integrity."

When Mulligan’s complaint hit the blog, however, IRV supporter and consultant Terry Bouricius took action and called city hall. He said Pacy’s info was inaccurate, and said so on Blazing Indiscretions.

“Owen was rightly upset,” Bouricius told Blurt. "But, what he would like to happen is actually what is going to happen."

Bouricius is a former Prog city councilor and state lawmaker who now works for FairVote, a national outfit that promotes IRV. In 2006, he was a paid consultant for the city. This year, he’s doing some work pro bono since few, if any, of the election workers in city hall were around three years ago.

Still, Bouricius said that anyone who may question the IRV outcome will be able to view cast ballots online after the election, essentially allowing for anyone to conduct their own citizen's audit of the results. You can go to this site to view how that worked from the 2006 election. To get a preview of the ballots for this year's election, go here.

As for Mulligan, he’s not happy that he had to learn from a blog post on a friend’s website that city officials were in the wrong — and from someone who isn't directly associated with the city's elections office. In fact, when he called Pacy for clarification after the training, he was told — again — that elected officials at the polling stations would not create the paper printouts.

"My paperwork I received for running the election is very clear: no paper print outs for the IRV machine," Mulligan tells Blurt.

Today, Pacy tells Blurt that the city didn't have complete information at the previous training, and said so to election workers. He said the updated information will be provided to election workers at Tuesday's training.

"At the initial training we did not have the information that the ballot count would be printed on the tape. We had indicated to the election workers at the training that we would provide clarification on this procedure," said Pacy. "Initially, we had been instructed that the tape would contain no relevant information. This was since clarified to mean that the tape will contain 'zeros' which have no relevant connection to the data stored in the machine, however the machine will print the number of ballots that have been ‘stored or put through’ the tabulator which is very relevant."

In other words, Pacy adds, ward clerks will do no different than they have always done, turn the machine on. "This simple action will have the machine print a tape with many zeros on it and a count of the ballots that have gone through the machine," Pacy said.

In addition, city officials have invited representatives from each party, each ward, and each mayoral campaign to observe the IRV software test that needs to happen before the machines are set up.

That was also an issue that concerned Mulligan — having only city employees and private consultants doing the work without elected poll workers and campaign reps on-hand was troubling to say the least.

"The mayoral campaigns have been invited to view the logic and accuracy testing," says Pacy, assistant chief administrative officer and the guy in charge of Burlington's elections. "More recently, the parties, campaigns and ward clerks have been asked to have representation at this testing."

The final election training for poll workers is slated for Tuesday, March 24.

(Note: Ken Picard will have a detailed description of how IRV works in next week's Seven Days. You can also view a Flash-animated tutorial here.)

UPDATE: As Haik Bedrosian points out in the comments below, the ruling on the case of the unsealed ballot box was in April, not May. Also, to clarify a judge did not exonerate Pacy, but found that Pacy had violated election law by opening the box. However in his ruling, Judge Dennis Pearson said he believed Pacy did so without any intent to harm or change the outcome of the election.

Thanks for chiming in on this Shay.

Last election "zero tapes" were printed in the morning at city hall, and at the end of the evening, zeroes printed out again Because the unix-based software in the voting machine can't deal with the IRV portion of the ballots. This is probably why Pacy was "instructed" that the tape would contain no relevant information.

If they are able to run a printout this year telling us the number of ballots that have been run though the voting machine, then then that will be a major improvement. I hope you or Ken cover that training on the 24th. The more eyes on this process the better.

Also- bear in mind that when Bouricius says folks can view cast ballots online that isn't exactly so. We can see what the machines say the ballots said. But the only way to conduct a true and meaningful audit would be to look at the actual paper ballots cast by human beings.

One other thing- Pacy was not "cleared of any wrongdoing" in that trial last year. That's wrong. Judge Pearson clearly stated in his decision. That Pacy broke the law. Pearson wrote...

"...The court also perceives the City's continued reluctance to admit once-and-for-all that a violation (indeed, three separate violations) of 17 V.S.A. § 2590(c) did occur, and the City Charter provides no safe harbor..."

People trust what you write to be the truth, Shay. It's important to make it the truth.

Thanks for chiming in, Haik.

I still don't see how Pacy was not cleared by the judge's ruling.

I read Judge Dennis Pearson's ruling as chastising the city for not copping to the fact that Pacy's actions violated state election law.

But, in the end the judge did not punish Pacy in any way. And, the election results were allowed to stand.

The judge even noted in his ruling that Pacy was "appropriately chagrined" for what he did. Adding that Pacy made a "good faith mistake committed under exigent circumstances." He also noted Pacy did not intend to change the outcome of the election, or harm any candidate.

"Chiming" loses its zing when you use it a second time.

You wrote "The issue was whether a ballot box was improperly unsealed during the recount of a New North End council race. Pacy was cleared of any wrongdoing..."

Someone unfamiliar with the case would probably read that and think he didn't improperly unseal the ballot box. It's totally misleading.

Pacy did improperly open the box, and it was a violation of the law. Furthermore Pearson did mention the possibility, "however slight" of criminal charges being filed against Pacy.

Here's the ruling.

Are you going to cover the training meeting on Tuesday?

I like the sound of chiming — especially wind chimes. My mom used to have them all over our yard.

As for Tuesday and covering the training, it's a deadline day so it will depend on whether I've met my deadline or not by the time of the training. I've seen times of 1 PM & 5:30 and have asked for clarification from Ben Pacy as to the when and where.

I don't disagree with you that my shorthand version in the previous post omitted the fact that Pacy violated state election law by breaking the seal, and the judge found that improper.

I was merely pointing out that the judge seemed to sympathize with Pacy and excused his transgression, and found that he had acted without any intent to harm or under the coercion of his boss.

In other words, the judge seemed to be saying, "OK, you broke the law, but you didn't know you were breaking the law - so don't do it again."

Let's hope.

Oh you're going to hate me, but I just noticed the Pearson's ruling was dated April 7th. You said the case was in May.

You need one of these. Makes life easier.

Doesn't anyone else want to chime in?


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