Glitches mar NC Board of Elections website’s vote count

pgannon@ncinsider.comMay 13, 2014 

BLACK INVESTIGATION

Kim Westbrook Strach, the executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

JULI LEONARD — 2006 News & Observer file photo

On election nights, the State Board of Elections’ website is supposed to function for the public as ESPN’s SportsCenter does for sports fans, providing up-to-the-minute and accurate results of the day’s contests.

That didn’t happen Tuesday night.

Glitches marred the results for races across the state, from the closely watched U.S. Senate and N.C. Supreme Court primaries to state House and Senate races. As vote counts came in from the 100 counties, many took to Twitter and other social media to express frustration with the agency.

Board of Elections officials on Wednesday took the blame for the problems and said they are reviewing the reporting system to keep them from surfacing again.

The agency late last year dropped the vendor that had provided the election reporting software after it couldn’t reach a contract agreement with the company. The state board had been paying Tampa, Fla.-based SOE Software more than $400,000 a year for maintenance and support on several products, including the election reporting software. Rather than replace the company with another vendor, the board decided to recycle and update in-house software.

Amy Strange, the state board’s deputy director for campaign finance and operations, said late last week that the agency’s IT department had been testing the software “around the clock.”

“We are aware of how important it is for that tool to work correctly and are testing it thoroughly, and it is our expectation that it will work and we will not have disaster,” she said.

But phones started ringing at the agency shortly after the first results were posted. Problems centered around the number of precincts that had reported vote totals, figures that tell the public how far along the counting has progressed in those races. The Board of Elections’ website was showing a high number of precincts reporting totals, yet relatively few votes cast.

“These vote totals seem low to me based on the amount of precincts reporting, should I be worried something is off?” tweeted Jonathan Kappler, director of State Government Relations with the UNC system.

Board officials acknowledged Tuesday evening that the system was incorrectly displaying precinct totals but maintained that the vote totals were accurate. The problem, they said, was that the system was reporting that an entire precinct had reported complete results when only absentee ballots had been counted.

Later in the evening, precinct totals disappeared entirely for individual races, and some website users complained that the system was inaccessible for short periods. Still others complained that the in-house software didn’t include maps that identified which counties had reported results. The SOE software included the map functions.

“We regret that initial display errors caused frustration for our voters and our county boards of elections,” said Kim Westbrook Strach, the board’s executive director, in a statement. “The state board takes seriously its responsibility to report accurate and timely results. Our dedicated staff worked throughout the evening to resolve these issues.”

No return to SOE

Josh Lawson, a Board of Elections spokesman, said Wednesday that the board is conducting a “top-down, immediate review” to ensure the flaws don’t emerge in future elections. He said there was no discussion about returning to SOE’s software or that of another company. “We are not taking this from in-house to a vendor,” he said.

Lawson also said the board plans to include maps as part of the election night reporting in November.

State Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican and chairman of the House Elections Committee, said he was confident that the results were accurate across the state. He called the election night problems a “few hours of inconvenience.”

“It was a mistake that was corrected that will not happen again,” he said, adding that the state board is saving taxpayer money by using in-house software.

Everyone’s watching

Kevin Rogers, policy and public affairs director for Action NC, a nonprofit advocacy group, was among those frustrated Tuesday.

“I thought maybe I’m doing something wrong, even though I’ve done it a million times before,” he said. Then he checked Twitter and realized others had similar gripes.

“Hopefully they’ll be prepared for the general (election),” he said. “It’s not like everybody isn’t watching North Carolina right now.”

Patrick Gannon writes for the NCInsider.com, a government news service owned by The News & Observer. www.ncinsider.com

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