Mobile County residents casting their ballots at certain voting precincts will see a change in the usual format during the upcoming presidential election, now that county officials have agreed to participate in a state pilot program.
The pilot, which was approved by the state Legislature earlier this year, is being run through Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill’s office and will test electronic poll books at participating precincts in lieu of traditional printed polls.
In all, the program will be rolled out in more than 30 Alabama counties during the general election Nov. 8, and this week the Mobile County Commission voted 2-1 to participate in the pilot — joining Madison, Baldwin, Cleburne, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Lee, Greene, Houston and several other counties that are already on board.
Commission President Jerry Carl, one of the two votes in favor of participating in the pilot, said the electronic approach could help prevent mistakes that have occurred in the past when using print poll books.
“You have a lot of potential for human error when checking those names off by hand,” Carl said. “If you’re a junior like me — I’ve actually voted for my dad before because they checked his name off and then he’s come in to vote behind me. They allowed him to vote, but it was still a provisional challenge.”
In the current system, voters go through multiple lines so they can be sorted by last names, sign a printed poll book and receive a ballot. Those casting votes at precincts participating in the upcoming pilot, however, will use a digital program run through an iPad to sign the polls.Poll Pad, as it’s called, was developed by KNOWiNK. Merrill said the company was selected because it has offered an e-polling service for five years and has “no record of issues on election day,” including the previous general election in 2012.
Last week, Lagniappe was able to sit in on a demonstration of the system, which scans a voter’s driver’s license (or any other approved form of identification) to bring up his or her name from the state’s list of registered voters. The entire process — from scanning a voter’s ID to signing the digital poll — takes less than a minute.
Altogether, Merrill said the program could reduce wait times at participating polls by 60 percent to 75 percent, and cut the number of tables used at some locations by half. The system can also lock out anyone whose identity has already been used to cast a vote. It also has the capability to tell if a voter is at the wrong precinct and print directions to the correct one.
“We want to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” Merrill said. “This is a test to find out what we’d need if [the program] was used throughout the state.”
Mobile County’s participation in the pilot will be paid for with leftover Help America Vote Act funds; the Poll Pad stations cost roughly $1,000 apiece.
Carl, who represents District 3, was joined in his support of the pilot program by District 2 Commissioner Connie Hudson. So far, the polling precincts that will use the pilot system during the Nov. 8 election are the Creekwood Church of Christ in Carl’s district and the Connie Hudson Senior Center in District 2.
Originally, all three county commission districts were to have a precinct included in the pilot, but Commissioner Merceria Ludgood — who voted against the resolution — specifically asked that “no District 1 precincts be included.”
Ludgood, who previously raised concerns about implementing any kind of procedural changes during such a large election cycle, said Monday she was still uncomfortable with the timing.
“My concern about a rollout now is that we won’t have time to do the kind of education we need for our poll workers and for the voters,” Ludgood said. “I don’t want to do anything in this election cycle that may have the unintended consequence of suppressing participation in the election.”
Ludgood told Lagniappe she doesn’t think e-polling is “a bad thing,” but has concerns for people unfamiliar with the new system — and for older voters who might not have experience with computers — since the election is only three months out.
Merrill, who met privately with all three commissioners before the Monday vote, said his office tried to test e-polling during a smaller election cycle, but a bill that would have authorized a similar pilot in the city of Montgomery failed to pass the Legislature in 2015. Though the legislation passed this year, Merrill said the 2016 regular session was too close to the March 1 primary to implement the pilot then.
“You have to start somewhere,” he said. “As I’ve said, we do expect the largest turnout in state history, but I can’t think of a better time to make lines shorter at the polls. I can’t think of a better time to reduce the wait time for voters.”