Five Ways Ballot Counting Could Be More Voter Friendly

Five Ways Ballot Counting Could Be More Voter Friendly

It wouldn't be hard for Cambridge to make its election process friendlier. Here's how to do it.

  • Posted on: 6 November 2013
  • By: stannenb

Election night at the Senior Center is a social event, bringing together Cambridge officials, election junkies, and politicians present and past. It's democracy in action, and an opportunity to see the unedited reactions of the winners and losers. But, when it comes to helping voters understand Cambridge's electoral system, it's a lost opportunity.

The rhythm of Cambridge electoral results is different than most other elections. Through many elections nights, voters have been trained to expect a stream of preliminary numbers, counting up towards 100% of precincts reporting. Cambridge, because of its ranked-preference voting, has a completely different pattern. Ballots, and the memory cards from the optical scanners that read ballots in voting places, must be brought to a single location so that, as candidates who received the fewest number one votes are eliminated, their votes can be transferred to voters' lower ranked choices. Polls close, ballots are brought to the Senior Center and then, after a few hours of nothing, results are announced inaudibly to an overcrowded room. Then everyone goes home.

Election Night at the Senior Center

For people outside the Senior Center, and even for some within, what's happening is a mystery. But making this better isn't hard. Here's what the Election Commission could do:

  1. Get a bigger room. The crowd at the Senior Center spills out into the hallway, where no one can hear or see the what's happening.
  2. Recognize that your constituency is more than the room. CCTV livestreams the results and other media live tweets the process. Make sure they're informed of progress. Use your web site or social media to reach the rest of Cambridge.
  3. Use modern technology, Part 1. A microphone would help everyone hear. The scramble to be able listen to the announcement of results last night was embarrassing.
  4. Use modern technology, Part 2. Election results are generated by software that tabulate votes through various rounds of counting. Those results are printed out when complete and handed out to those in attendance. Why not display these results, as they're generated, on a large screen?
  5. Livestream the auxiliary ballot count. Ballots that can't be machine counted are examined, one by one, to discern voter intent, with election commissioners voting when there are conflicting opinions. Point a camera this process and stream it on the web for full transparency.

But fixing voting starts before election night. The most important thing the Election Commission could do is get a better ballot design. This election's City Council ballot was large and unwieldy. One Cambridge official noted that, given the shape and size of the ballot, it was impossible to follow the instructions on the "privacy envelope" voters receive in which to bring their marked ballot to the counting station. Ballot usability expert Dana Chisnell , after having been asked to give a quick examination of Cambridge's ballot tweeted:

Hand counting of auxiliary ballots continues as of Wednesday afternoon. Final, official results of the election won't be available until November 15th.

Ballot being held up for public inspectionBallot Counting

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a) How many ballots have all 25 choices marked?

b) Among each of all the ballots what are the most choices marked?... 25?... 17?...

Several additional points :

1. The Senior Center Room is a terrible meeting room generally. One might say the acoustics are bad, but the real problem is very noisy ceiling fans, so it hard to hear anything at any public event, including vote counting.

2. The feeling of a low ceiling in the enlarged meeting room is not very pleasant.

3. IF IT AIN'T BROKE, DON'T FIX IT. : I have no problem with the large ballots. The fonts are large enough for all to read (including 25 candidates) and any effort to make it smaller would squeeze things down. I have heard of no ballot scandals, and the equipment is proven and works well. I am worried that if we tried to change the ballot design we could end up with our own little version of Obamacare.

3. New technology should be used, but only with care. Again, we can learn from the Internet/NSA experience. Unauthorized parties can gain access and mess things up. Our voting methods should be best that simple local methods can provide, off-Internet. However, up-to-date displays (especially for the citizen observers) would be most useful to give quick updates.

4. The long delay between the preliminary election results of early Wednesday and November 15 needs to be explained from the get-go.. The City's wetsite should make this very clear to all.

5. We need agreement from all candidates in writing in future election : NO ROBO-CALLS.

6. The web should be useful for having a good thoughtful discussion. There should be no attack Blogs whatsoever.

Steve K.


The best analysis of Cambridge ballots can be found on Robert Winter's Cambridge Civic Journal, at

Ballot design is a professional discipline and the Cambridge ballot, while nowhere near the worst, violates some best practices.

I'm told that our voting machines are 20 years old and that it's increasingly difficult to get spare parts, so keeping them working will become more and more of an issue. When it comes to issues of the integrity of the vote count, the method Cambridge uses - electronic tallies with physical paper ballot backup - is considered the gold standard. We shouldn't move away from that.

Susana Segat and I will discuss the results and some of the more technical aspects of the Count (especially surplus transfers) on our CCTV program Tuesday, Nov 12 beginning at 5:30pm. I will guarantee that you'll find a lot of it quite interesting.

My personal preference for how the Count works at the Senior Center would be to project the results onto a screen or monitor as the tabulation is done. Everyone would learn the results at the same time with brief pauses between each Round.

Actually, among election integrity activists, hand-marked paper ballots hand counted (at the precinct, which can't happen with PR) in public is the real Gold Standard. See, for example,