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Can Burlington Pull Off an Error-Free Election? 

Published February 19, 2009 at 12:31 p.m.

Let’s face it, Burlington has had its share of problems since longtime elections chief Jo LaMarche left the city to take a job as the Addison County Clerk, and many wonder if the current team is really up to the task of pulling off an error-free election in the state's largest city.

Last May, city Democrats hauled Chief Administrative Officer Jonathan Leopold and his assistant Ben Pacy intocourt. The issue was whether a ballot box was improperly unsealedduring the recount of a New North End council race. Pacy was cleared ofany wrongdoing, but it cast a pall over whether the city could run anelection. Since then, Burlington had a statewide primary where not enough ballotswere ordered for one ward, and then on November 4 they incorrectly reported vote tallieson election eve, which caused confusion in a key county senate race. And, results were handed out to the public several hours later than in any previous election.

Now comes word that election workers were given bad infoabout how voting machines would be set up. During a training last week,Pacy told election workers that ballot machines would be calibrated atCity Hall and elected election officials would not be allowed to createprintouts at the polling site proving the machines were clear ofballots. That has been the standard in past elections, LaMarche confirmed with Blurt, the Seven Days staff blog.

That didn’t sit well with Ward 6 election official Owen Mulligan. Elected election officials — not city employees and consultants — should ensure ballot boxes are clear of any ballots, he argues. And, rightly so.

Mulligan contacted Seven Days, and subsequently his note to us ended up on Jay Vos' blog Blazing Indiscretions, where it stirred up some interesting comments. Haik Bedrosian of BurlingtonPol chimed in, and posted a diary on his site, "IRV and Election Integrity."

When Mulligan’s complaint hit the blog, however, IRV supporter and consultant Terry Bouricius took action and called city hall. He said Pacy’s info was inaccurate, and said so on Blazing Indiscretions.

“Owen was rightly upset,” Bouricius told Blurt. "But, what he would like to happen is actually what is going to happen."

Bouricius is a former Progcity councilor and state lawmaker who now works for FairVote, a national outfitthat promotes IRV. In 2006, he was a paid consultant for the city. Thisyear, he’s doing some work pro bono since few, if any, of the electionworkers in city hall were around three years ago.

Still, Bouricius said that anyone who may question the IRV outcome will be able to view cast ballots online after the election, essentially allowing for anyone to conduct their own citizen's audit of the results. You can go to this site to view how that worked from the 2006 election. To get a preview of the ballots for this year's election, go here.

As for Mulligan, he’s not happy that he had to learn froma blog post on a friend’s website that city officials were in the wrong — and from someone who isn't directly associated with the city's elections office. In fact, when he called Pacy for clarification after the training, he was told — again — that elected officials at the polling stations would not create the paper printouts.

"My paperwork I received for running the election is very clear: no paper print outs for the IRV machine," Mulligan tells Blurt.

Today, Pacy tells Blurt that the city didn't have complete information at the previous training, and said so to election workers. He said the updated information will be provided to election workers at Tuesday's training.

"At the initial training we did not have the information that the ballot count would be printed on the tape. We had indicated to the election workers at the training that we would provide clarification on this procedure," said Pacy. "Initially, we had been instructed that the tape would contain no relevant information. This was since clarified to mean that the tape will contain 'zeros' which have no relevant connection to the data stored in the machine, however the machine will print the number of ballots that have been ‘stored or put through’ the tabulator which is very relevant."

In other words, Pacy adds, ward clerks will do no different than they havealways done, turn the machine on. "This simple action will have themachine print a tape with many zeros on it and a count of the ballotsthat have gone through the machine," Pacy said.

In addition, city officials have invited representatives from each party, each ward, and each mayoral campaign to observe the IRV software test that needs to happen before the machines are set up.

That was also an issue that concerned Mulligan — having only city employees and private consultants doing the work without elected poll workers and campaign reps on-hand was troubling to say the least.

"The mayoral campaigns have been invited to view the logic and accuracy testing," says Pacy, assistant chief administrative officer and the guy in charge of Burlington's elections. "More recently, the parties, campaigns and ward clerks have been asked to have representation at this testing."

The final election training for pollworkers is slated for Tuesday, March 24.

(Note: Ken Picardwill have a detailed description of how IRV works in next week's Seven Days. You can also view a Flash-animated tutorial here.)

UPDATE: As Haik Bedrosian points out in the comments below, the ruling on the case of the unsealed ballot box was in April, not May. Also, to clarify a judge did not exonerate Pacy, but found that Pacy had violated election law by opening the box. However in his ruling, Judge Dennis Pearson said he believed Pacy did so without any intent to harm or change the outcome of the election.

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About The Author

Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.

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