Facing concerns over Washington’s past unpreparedness for its presidential primary, the D.C. Board of Elections has assured that the District is ready for this June’s primary.
The worries are due in part to past elections impaired by faulty voting machines, insufficient polling staff, inaccessible polling stations and delays in counting votes, according to The Washington Post.
The primary will mark D.C.’s first major electoral event since the 2014 mayoral elections when issues regarding the voting system in the District were brought to light, particularly the process of acquiring new voting machines.
In an effort to improve the voting process, the board will lease voting machines to replace old ones and use a new electronic pollbook system to allow for an expedited voting process. The ePollBook software uses electronic registration for voters and aims to increase the efficiency of voter check-in and verification.
Board of Elections spokeswoman Margarita Mikhaylova highlighted the board’s reluctance to implement a complete overhaul of the voting machine system, citing the lack of approved testing for newer systems.
“Although new machines have become available on the market, it is unknown … [which] ones will be certified under the new anticipated standards,” Mikhaylova wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Thus, the Board has felt it unwise at this time to purchase outright an entirely new system that has not yet been tested and approved under the new standards.”
In addition, Mikhaylova explained that the board plans to employ specifically trained “technical rovers,” software experts who will seek to resolve any difficulties that may occur on the day of the primary.
“DCBOE has deployed specifically trained personnel to assist with any technical questions or issues,” Mikhaylova wrote. “If a problem were to arise, the precinct captain can immediately contact a technical rover. … Response time should be extremely efficient.”
Doubts surrounding the board’s financial accountability in regards to purchasing new voting machines were pursued during a D.C. Council Judiciary hearing last month, during which Council Member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) questioned acting Board Chairwoman Deborah Nichols, The Washington Post reported.
Board members have complained for years that they are unable purchase new voting machines because of inadequate funding when, in reality, the board was in possession of $4.9 million in federal funds – enough to purchase new voting machines.
Nichols defended her actions by explaining that she was unaware of how much money the board actually possessed.
“I thought we needed funding,” Nichols said during the Judiciary Committee hearing. “It wasn’t until six to eight months ago that I really found out the magnitude of what we had.”
According to The Washington Post, McDuffie asserted that the board is responsible for knowing what funding is available.
“You are the folks charged with administering the elections, and the issue you presented [in the past] was the equipment was outdated. Today you have the funding,” McDuffie said at the hearing. “Who was supposed to know the funding exists, if it’s not you all?”
Mikhaylova explained that the board had only recently undergone an audit of its finances at the time of the hearing.
“The District of Columbia, along with other jurisdictions, recently underwent an Election Assistance Commission Audit of its … funding,” Mikhaylova wrote in an email to The Hoya. “It wasn’t until a final report of the accounting was issued that Mrs. Nichols had an up-to-date amount of the funds.”
Member of activist group D.C. Watch Dorothy Brizill, who has monitored elections and attended board meetings for years, expressed concern with the board’s lack of transparency over its finances.
“If you look at the budgets that were submitted by the Board of Elections to the council, you will never ever see an indication that there was federal grant money available,” Brizill said to The Washington Post. “Now it turns out they were given money for new voting machines. . . . Why weren’t they ever acquired?”
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission, an independent body tasked with monitoring adherence to voting system guidelines, found that in September 2014 the board had $3 million in unspent federal funds. Another report on the EAC’s website explained that the board had $11 million in unspent funds. It is unclear why there is a disparity between these numbers.
In addition to the budget accounting issues, technical problems with voting machines occurred during the 2014 election. According to the D.C. Auditor’s Office, more than 64 percent of precinct machines it inspected during this time experienced various malfunctions.
According to The Washington Post, during the 2014 elections, over 40 percent of voting precincts were at least partially inaccessible for disabled voters. Mikhaylova said that the board is currently working with D.C. Public Schools and the Office of Disability Rights to provide accessible equipment and to deploy Americans with Disability Act compliance experts on election day.
“We cannot emphasize enough our goal to provide all voters … access to our voting program,” Mikhaylova wrote. “Our entire agency is committed to removing barriers to access at our polling sites.”
Despite these promised steps, the D.C. Council remains skeptical that these issues will be resolved. McDuffie is attempting to work with the D.C. Board of Elections to improve the District’s voting infrastructure, but it is unknown if the council will take any legislative action at this time to further the process.
“The folks charged with administering the elections [must work hard],” McDuffie said to The Washington Post. “I think the public’s confidence in the board’s ability to administer an election will depend on how the board administers the 2016 primary in general.”
Hoya Staff Writer Aly Pachter contributed reporting.
Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated that the D.C. Board of Elections plans to use a Scytl ePollBook system. The Board has not yet decided on which ePollBook system it will be using.
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