Glitches on state elections site draw primary watchers' ire
Posted May 7, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — State Board of Elections officials are apologizing for problems with a new elections results reporting system that displayed some inaccuracies after Tuesday night's primary.
Journalists and other election night observers noted the issues after the elections board's website showed abnormally high numbers of precincts reporting results almost immediately after polls closed at 7:30 p.m. Elections officials began adjusting the precinct numbers downward after noticing the problem and eventually removed them to avoid confusion.
Officials said the underlying raw vote totals were not affected but apologized for confusion in a statement released around midnight.
"We regret that initial display errors caused frustration for our voters and our county boards of elections," Executive Director Kim Strach said in the statement. "The State Board takes seriously its responsibility to report accurate and timely results."
Spokesman Josh Lawson said the errors were caused by programming issues in the state's new in-house results system, which staff members began implementing last fall.
Although Lawson said the timetable was "not ideal," it was necessary after negotiations with the state's previous election results vendor, SOE Software Corp., fell through in the fall.
Since 2007, the state paid about $6.8 million for contracts with SOE for the results system and other elections-related services. But Lawson said the company failed to deliver a campaign finance reporting product that cost the state $1 million in advance, prompting government officials to let the contract lapse.
"Since that time, we've been able to replace those services at a 90 percent cost savings," he said.
That means the agency will save roughly $360,000 this year. As for the pending project, Lawson said the state is still waiting.
"The justice department is considering the possibility of litigating with regards to the delivery of that product," Lawson said. "We are still hopeful we'll get the product delivered."
State agencies have been plagued of late by reports of glitchy IT project launches that run over budget and behind schedule.
Those contracts mean big business to technology vendors, which will receive about $1.6 billion in state and federal taxpayer dollars for more then 100 projects in various stages of development.
An April 2013 audit of the 84 trackable state technology projects found they took an average of 65 percent longer to complete and cost more than twice original agency estimates. That's an additional $356.3 million, the audit showed.
Lawson said the decision in late 2013 was part of a renewed emphasis by state leaders to ensure IT contracts delivered on their promises.
The state used an in-house system to report elections results prior to 2007, so elections officials decided to go it alone again for 2014.
"That was a much rockier road than we would have liked, and we regret the confusion it caused inside the state and outside the state," Lawson said.
Cherie Poucher, director of the Wake County Board of Elections, said she shared concerns about the potential reporting issues with her board members for months because of the state's short timetable to build the system.
“You think about software being developed – federal, state, local – over the last years and when you first try to use it, there’s problems,” Poucher said.
She said she noticed the problems at about 7:45 p.m. Tuesday when the precinct numbers the county fed to the state didn't match the site.
Initially, precincts were counted as "reported" even if the system had only logged absentee ballots, which come in much earlier than the votes cast on election day. Although the system continued to count vote totals it received from those precincts, anyone trying to figure out how many of the results remained uncounted wouldn't see accurate percentages.
Lawson said in-house developers had been testing the system "for a long while." Although tests by county users just last week identified problems with implementation across the precincts, he said Tuesday night's issues were code-related.
"We are owning this," he said. "This is not something we're trying to lay at the feet of any of the counties."
Poucher said Wake County elections officials verified the data reported by the state Wednesday afternoon and are now confident the numbers reflect county-level vote totals.
Going forward, Lawson said, elections officials will review the entire system before it's used again for runoff or general elections.
"We're looking at where did things not go right but also towards the future, preempting some of these problems that we did not see," Lawson said.