Alabama is looking to implement a pilot program that would use electronic poll books instead of printed lists of qualified voters, and state officials are aiming to try the new process for the first time during November’s general election.
Local officials have been mixed in their response, with some saying they’re anxious to jump on board and others concerned about making any kind of change during a presidential election cycle that routinely sees the area’s largest voter turnout.
The program is being implemented through Secretary of State John Merrill’s office. Though it was authorized by the Legislature in May, Merrill still hasn’t released many details on exactly how the pilot program would work or what counties may be included.
According to the enabling legislation, participation in the pilot is “at the discretion of the secretary of state” but is also available to “any county where the county commission and judge of probate have consented to participate.”Mark Erwin, chief of staff to Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis, has already said the local probate court’s election staff is “anxious to be a part of it,” claiming it would streamline several duties of the board of registrars.
“Basically, we’d replace the printed books at the registration tables as the voters enter their polling locations with what would basically be a touch screen-type deal where you can look up the voter’s name,” Erwin said. “Once that person is identified on that electronic list, their voter history, which we’d normally have in the board of registrars, would automatically be uploaded.”
Erwin spoke to the Mobile County Commission during its most recent work session to answer questions about the pilot while the commission considered approving the county’s participation.
However, the matter was tabled after commissioners Merceria Ludgood and Connie Hudson expressed concern over the limited information released.
Ludgood said the general election time crunch makes her “nervous,” adding that, in her experience, other changes to voting procedures — like the state’s voter ID requirement that took effect in 2014 — have felt “rushed” in their implementation. In a bit of a joke, Ludgood suggested Merrill wait to launch the program “in 2018 when he’s on the ballot.”
“When it comes down to things that pertain to voting, I’m very persnickety,” Ludgood said. “I don’t want the bugs to be worked out on election day for us to find out, ‘Oh, this aspect doesn’t work.’”
Hudson echoed that sentiment, asking why other counties couldn’t take part in the pilot program to “let them work out the bugs.”
Though Erwin said he could appreciate the commissioners’ concerns, he said the probate court’s election office was very interested in being part of the pilot to make sure Mobile County is effectively using the latest technology.
“If we’re going to do something, we want to be the ones on the forefront working it out to make sure we do it right and do it better,” Erwin said. “We don’t want it kind of pushed down on us after some other county says they’ve done it right, and then we find problems with it. I really think, in any of these types of initiatives, we want to be on the cutting edge.”
Erwin told commissioners the process was still in its early stages, and though he couldn’t name them, he said other counties had already agreed to participate in the pilot program.
Lagniappe reached out to Merrill’s press secretary, Kayla Farnon, who said up to 30 counties had agreed to participate in the program as of July 1, though she didn’t specify which ones.
“Once we have the total number of all counties and names, we will be issuing a press release promoting this effort,” Farnon said via email. “We are cutting edge and intend to be one of the leaders in the use of electronic poll books.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a rollout in November would make Alabama the 33rd state using electronic poll books in some capacity. However, some of those states haven’t implemented the electronic poll books in all of their statewide voting precincts.
When asked about some the concerns local officials raised over any possible “bugs,” Farnon only responded to say, “We do not foresee any issues or concerns.”
That didn’t seem to comfort Ludgood, who said on June 23 the commission had received “no assurances that manual backups would be in place” ensure all active voters are allowed to participate in the presidential and local elections in November.
With more than 250,000 active voters and several split precincts, Ludgood said Mobile County already has its own challenges in the current system.
“We train people thoroughly, and yet, sometimes we still have hiccups, and this could potentially be a really big hiccup,” she said. “I think ultimately it can be a good thing and make for a more efficient operation on election day, but I just think the stakes are too high to basically be learning a system during the biggest election cycle we have in the state.”
For now, the commission has taken the matter off the table until Merrill releases more information. According to Erwin, there’s no impending deadline other than the election itself, which he said leaves time for discussion.
“I think we could certainly have the secretary of state come to Mobile and meet with you as a group or individually to go over what he intends to do, because frankly, we’re not 100 percent sure how he intends to implement this,” Erwin said. “We’re just making sure we’re jumping through the hoops the statute says we have to to be involved in the pilot if he does launch it.”
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