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Elections Committee talks balloting systems

Steve Grabowski, center, outlines the various means available for balloting systems, while Jim Trummel, left, and Board liaison Steve Tuttle digest the data during the Ocean Pines Elections Committee meeting last Friday.

By Greg Ellison

Staff Writer

(Nov. 28, 2019) Besides establishing evaluation criteria for selecting a new balloting system for the 2020 OPA Board of Directors contest, the Ocean Pines Elections Committee last Friday also weighed the option of switching from employing paper forms to electronic means.

Elections Committee Chairman Steve Habeger resumed discussions on the matter by noting that committee member Bob Windsor had, since the committee’s last meeting, developed a scoring system and methodology for examining the voting systems available.

“When we find the best system, we’ll be able to identify it and identify why we think it’s the best system,” he said. “We’re at least starting to consider the cost/benefit analysis.”

Among the actions included in the elections committee’s final report from the 2019 contest issued in September was investigating an updated ballot counting machine.

Windsor said after considering the roughly defined voting system requirements drafted by Habeger, he developed a rating system to establish objective criteria.

“We’re going to have objective criteria and there’s going to be a lot of subjective stuff here too,” he said.

The decision will involve a paper versus online divide, with the cost and details of various alternatives clearly defined, Habeger said.

Committee member Steve Grabowski said after conducting initial research on voting system, the options uncovered besides paper ballots included telephone, mail-in, online or kiosks.

“Some of these online places will do all these things, if you want them all, or just one if you want,” he said.

Habeger said OPA’s newly instituted Northstar financial software also includes a balloting option.

Grabowski acknowledged the existence of Northstar balloting systems but said so many options had yet to be considered that further investigation is warranted.

“I think we need to decide, first, do we put all our eggs in one basket?” he said.

The decision is more convoluted than simply paper or electronic, with hybrid alternatives also existing, Grabowski said.

“You can still do paper ballots and do it online,” he said. “They just do it all for you and they calculate it online and you watch the tally on the board.”

There are also dial-in options, which Grabowski said could prove popular.

“I would say they would be a lot of people that would vote by phone,” he said. “All they have to do is dial a toll free number and punch their code in who they wanted to vote for.”

This would also provide an alternative voting method for residents who don’t have access to the Internet, Grabowski said.

Since no alternatives have been discounted, Habeger said details about the Northstar balloting system options should be acquired.

Ace Print & Mail owner Thom Guylas, who handles OPA election materials, said one advantage to using Northstar balloting systems would be added incentive for residents to sign up on the group’s website, while also noting Ocean Pines is likely its largest account.

“I want to, first of all, see if they can handle that quantity reliably and securely,” he said.

Guylas also distributed a list of five vendors offering “optimal mark recognition,” software.

“What I like about some of these systems is it gives us the ability to design our own ballot,” he said.

The design potential could include adding a barcode for verification and candidate pictures.

“My biggest thing is just making sure that somebody can’t scream foul at a later point,” he said. “If we get to design them, then you’re not spending all that money on those Scantron forms and you can make it more personal.”

Guylas said the handful of vendors listed represented a small sampling that appeared suitable to maintain prior cost levels.

“These are only five of thousands,” he said.

Windsor inquired about evaluation strategies for the abbreviated list, much less the larger number of options available.

The bulk of vendors have online video material providing system operational insights, Guylas said

“The majority of them have pretty in-depth websites, it’s just a matter of jumping online,” he said.

Committee member Mark Heintz asked if cost points could be obtained from voting system suppliers.

Habeger said obtaining related fiscal information would involve registering online with assorted vendors.

“You’re going to get marketing emails as soon as you put it in there,” he said.

Grabowski suggested committee members could do a cursory review of the five options before providing any information to potential vendors.

“We can eliminate some of these just by their functionality,” he said.

Guylas said converting to electronic voting systems might reduce community participation.

“People are too skeptical, especially with the age bracket that’s here,” he said.

Guylas championed a hybrid approach that incorporates both paper ballot and phone voting options to maintain a sense of continuity.

“Try it that way and slowly work in the electronic,” he said.

Bylaws and Resolutions Committee Chairman Jim Trummel, who attended the meeting to provide insights regarding any required changes to OPA governing documents, said the hybrid approach would be preferable to wholly eliminating paper ballots.

“I think you would be stretching the bylaws if you deleted the paper ballot option,” he said. “Make sure you’ve got the authority to go electronic if you’re seriously considering electronic only.”

Trummel said any potential changes to election processes would require a change to resolution M-06.

Trummel suggested adding to the current trio of attachments to M-06, with a fourth amendment outlining alternative mail-in options for OPA elections.

Habeger, while outlining committee next steps, said the meeting discussion appears to have established the need for a short-term and long-term strategies.

“I think we’ve achieved sort of a consensus that we might be looking at an interim process and then possibly an eventual process,” he said.

Looking ahead to the committee’s next Dec. 13 meeting, the members agreed to survey the proposed vendor list to match needs with options, with Grabowski volunteering to investigate options available through Northstar, and Habeger tasked with drafting an attachment to resolution M-06 to be reviewed in conjunction with Trummel.