Pines Board Debates Voting System

Pines Board Debates Voting System
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OCEAN PINES –   Discussions on the use of online voting highlighted a recent presentation to the Ocean Pines board.

Last Saturday, Ocean Pines Elections Committee Chair Tom Piatti presented the Ocean Pines Board of Directors with an update on the status of an investigation into the association’s voting system.

Since the new committee was formed last fall, Piatti said members have worked with association staff and contractors to identify the source of voting discrepancies in the 2022 election. He told the board last week that while changes should be made to the association’s scanning software and paper ballots, the committee determined that the use of online voting had complicated the group’s work and had the potential to compromise personal data.

“We conclude that we don’t want to do online voting,” he said. “It doesn’t work.”

Results from the 2022 board election were first called into question last September, when a hand count of votes revealed significant discrepancies in vote totals. Five of the six candidates had between 100 and 300 less votes than originally reported. The difference between the third- and fourth- place candidates had also narrowed from 152 votes to 15 votes, and the total number of votes had decreased from 9,053 to 8,113.

“This hand count also verified that the tabulation program needs to be investigated to identify the reason for the reporting an excess of votes, above the maximum number of paper ballots, that were scanned on 8/11/22,” a report from the former committee chair, Carol Ludwig, reads. “The failure to verify the information generated by the tabulation program resulted in an inaccurate report of results by Elections Committee Chair.”

Following the resignation of elections committee members, the board last October voted to appoint five new volunteers, who have since been tasked with investigating discrepancies in the voting process.

Piatti told board members last week the new committee was first tasked with evaluating the ballot scanning process to determine why there was a 940-vote error. The board also directed the group to do a deep dive into the voting issue with a Dec. 1 deadline.

“Keep in mind, none of us on the elections committee had served on the committee prior to that,” he said. “We had to dig in and do a lot of research.”

Piatti said discussions with the association’s IT department revealed the scanner that was used in the counting process was programmed to scan both sides of the ballot, though the back side was left blank. When that scan was uploaded, the software system would sometimes count ballot marks that had bled through the paper. He also highlighted problems with the community’s scanning software, Snap Survey, and the use of new ballot paper, which was both larger and thinner than the cardstock that was used in previous elections.

“We held multiple work sessions, we went through the file cabinets in the admin building, looked at the ballots, looked at previous ballots, and we also talked to the printing contractor that has been doing this for 20 years,” he said. “And he pointed out that some of the changes we made were not good.”

A recent committee report, Piatti added, also highlighted issues with online voting, which was used for the first time during the 2022 election. He said not only did the contractors have to confirm that lot owners did not vote twice – once through mail and once online – but that the process could also have potential security issues.

“There was a potential of a problem of spillage of personal data …,” he said. “That is why this committee has concluded we should not do online voting.”

Piatti suggested the association could implement new counting software, change its paper ballots and outsource its election process. He added that the most recent election disenfranchised multiple-lot owners.

“We have 213 multiple-property owners for a total of 479 properties …,” he explained. “Therefore, if they vote electronically, the way they voted was weighed against all the properties. If they voted manually, they got one vote, unless they came back and asked for envelopes for their other properties. That didn’t work out too well in my view. That’s why we want an envelope for each property someone owns.”

Director Frank Daly said he understood the committee’s concerns, but questioned if the group had determined the number of lot owners that voted in the 2022 election.

“Issuing the number of lots that voted would make a lot of the skepticism go away,” he said. “To me, that’s the whole issue.”

Director Colette Horn said she disagreed with the committee’s stance on online voting. She argued the group had provided nothing in its report to show there was an error in online voting.

“What I’m hearing was the source of the errors was in the paper ballot vote, and you’re saying the improvement of paper and scanning equipment is going to solve that,” she said.

Director Steve Jacobs agreed, arguing that while there were valid concerns about the use of online voting, nothing was done to address those concerns or prove that it was the source of tabulation errors in the 2022 election.

“To turn around and say we should eliminate electronic voting, when no problem has been identified with electronic voting, would disenfranchise around 811 ballots and 2,341 votes out of the 8,113 that were cast in 2022,” he said.

Association President Doug Parks said he still had questions about the process of weighing online votes for multiple-lot owners. He suggested the association address scanning issues and return to mail-in voting until concerns about online voting could be addressed.

“My whole point is, while I believe there is room for online voting at some point, I would also offer that it’s now February,” he said. “And unless the committee says we need to move forward and make this change, I don’t see any real problem with going back to a known commodity, which would be the way we did it.”

Both Horn and Jacobs said the board was still left with questions regarding the 2022 election.

“What we asked to have done was not done by this committee,” Horn said. “We asked to have an examination of all voting options that were used in that election, what the source of the error actually was, and, if there were sources of error, what are possible solutions. We’ve got nothing.”

Daly said he also had questions about the most recent election.

“The critical thing in an election is that every legitimate vote is counted and every legitimate vote is counted properly,” he said. “And clearly that didn’t happen in the last election. So the real question is what are we going to do in the upcoming election to make sure of that.”

After further discussion, Parks suggested the board hold off on any motion until the elections committee submitted its recommendations.

“I think we do need to get some recommendation from the elections committee on how to proceed with this election, whether or not it includes electronic voting,” he said.

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.