More than 50 people streamed into the V.I. Election System offices on St. Thomas Thursday night to witness firsthand the testing of the new electronic voting machines for the Saturday primaries.
Voters, candidates and party officials were represented during the testing of the DS200s, the tabulators that scanned the paper ballots, and the AutoMarks, which cater to voters with disabilities.
On St. Croix, a similar testing took place led by the St. Croix District Board of Elections. Caroline Fawkes, elections supervisor, said all St. Croix board members were present for “glitch-free” testing and certification of 18 voting machines, but no one from the public attended.
St. Thomas-St. John Board Chairman Arturo Watlington said, “This process is to make sure [the votes] are recorded accurately and even the least of the write-ins.”
An eager audience stood shoulder to shoulder in the first hour of the testing, watching keenly as a quorum of four board members took on the task of inserting 128 test ballots into the DS200s that lined three sides of the inner storage area. Watlington, along with board members Alecia Wells, Lydia Hendricks and Claudette Georges, each inserted 32 test ballots into each machine in assembly line fashion, starting on one end of the row of machines.
Each of the 128 test ballots represented all possible votes that could be cast, according to Watlington.
“The technicians have already tested them from their technical perspective,” said Watlington of the machines. “We will now test them as to their accuracy of each and every vote that can possibly be cast.”
The ESS technician present answered the public’s questions freely but said she could not be interviewed by the press.
The crowd actively raised concerns during the testing process, from checking if the boxes that caught the ballots were indeed empty to the machine’s response if the voter undervotes, overvotes or mistakenly inserts two ballots.
One 2014 election candidate who refused to be identified was worried that the tabulating machines required some degree of reading comprehension, with options that could cause confusion for the voter if not read carefully.
Several individuals inquired on the construction of the ballot boxes, citing the last elections when they said the boxes were either of flimsy make or were found to be open and unsecured at the polls.
“The plastic boxes last time were not locked,” said voter Darien Wheatley, referring to the 2012 elections. “Now we have containers that are locked and have keys. There’s more security. I think people have to be more confident in their vote.”
For the most part, the attendees seemed satisfied with the new machines.
“I am very impressed,” said Wheatley. “It allows us to have a paper trail in case we have a closed election. We didn’t have a paper trail before and I think it’s very important to have a paper trail for our voting machines.”
Democratic Party District Chairman Edgar Phillips said he was satisfied with the new electronic voting process. According to Phillips, the history-making number of Democratic candidates this year makes it imperative for the electronic voting process to work accurately and smoothly.
“This system here, you get the results much faster,” said Phillips. “The counting of the ballots last time was one of the controversies that took place.”
Phillip added that this time the setup allows for a much easier voting process. He also said he thinks 2014 will see a fair election.
“There are many different avenues where you can check if there are mishaps,” he explained. “You can actually go back and the machine tells you everything.”
Securing the Machines
The gray area for most of the attendees is the period between the certification of the machines, which occurs after each machine scans 128 ballots correctly, and the opening of the polls at 7 a.m. on Saturday.
Watlington assured the crowd that after the machines are certified, they will be stored under lock and key, and then delivered to the polling places on Friday night. The machines will be constantly guarded by police officers, said Watlington, until they are opened Saturday morning.
Each machine is opened by two keys, held by the two highest-ranking election officers at the precinct.
The ESS technician said that each of the machines has sophisticated seals that ensure the machines certified Thursday night were the same machines opened at the polls Saturday morning. If the seals did not match, or if the machine detects any sort of tampering, it will cease to be operational at all, according to the technician.
Phillips said he liked the fact that there were “a lot of locks and keys,” as long as the persons in charge of the keys for each DS200 “do what they are supposed to do.”
“Check, check and check,” he stressed. “If they check on each other, a process like that would make me feel satisfied.”
Wheatley said that, at this point, voters would have to trust the Board of Elections in securing the machines.
“We have the machines here; we have these backups to make the process safer,” he said. “I think we have to trust that and see how it works.”
At 11:40 p.m. Watlington said all the machines “checked out,” and would be packed up starting 9 a.m. Friday morning for delivery to the polling places that evening.
When asked of the chances that the machines can be tampered with, Watlington said, “Everything is a possibility. There’s a possibility you and I could drop down as we walk out that door today, but the possibility of those things happening? Little or none.”
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