WHITMAN — A second informational program was conducted by the Electronic Voting Study Committee, including a demonstration of the Turning Technologies devices, in the Selectmen’s Meeting Room of Whitman Town Hall on Tuesday, April 12.
The town’s IT Director Josh MacNeil and Town Clerk Dawn Varley, both members of the committee, handed devices out for those in attendance to try.
“What we’re looking at here is using these devices to count votes silently, which would eliminate the way we’ve been doing Town Meeting for a while now through acclamation votes or through standing counts or the secret ballot process that we already have in place,” said Town Moderator and Study Committee Chairman Michael Seele.
The Study Committee will be making a report to Town Meeting May 2.
Sample articles were shown at the Study Committee meeting on a projection screen, much as they would be at Town Meeting, with “yes” or “no” prompts from which voters would choose by a numbered keypad on the device resembling a remote control that is smaller than a smartphone.
Thirty seconds were allowed for voting on each of six questions. When polling opens, a counter appears in a square in the lower left-hand corner of the screen and a vote counter shows only the number of people casting votes until the 30 seconds elapse. Results are reported in the form of a bar graph on screen at the close of each polling window.
Committee member Robert Trotta said 30 seconds, as it ticks down, seemed like a long time, but MacNeil said the time window is customizable.
“You have a pretty good amount of control with the software,” he said.
When one sample question received a 50-50 split decision, MacNeil noted how important exact counts are at Town Meeting.
“On two-thirds votes, it calculates it for you right away,” Varley agreed.
Seele said the last informational session had raised questions concerning voting security, power failures and handicapped access that the committee could not yet answer, so Turning Technologies representative Greg Alexander was brought in via conference call.
Alexander said the devices operate on a radio signal similar to wireless landline telephones.
“We take a very small portion of that frequency and there are 82 different channels that we use within the frequency,” Alexander said. “I’ve been with Turning Technologies for over 10 years now [and] there has never been any interference issue.”
Turning Technologies works on Department of Defense and hospital contracts all over the world.
“There’s nothing in the technology that defeats it, but there’s proprietary information in the response card, or clicker, as many people call it, and the receiver,” he said.
Only information from town-owned devices would be accepted by the computer, so someone could not stand outside the hall could hack in via their own personal devices.
“This is not going to affect how Town Meeting is run, it’s only going to determine how the votes are going to be taken,” said former Town Administrator Michael Hayes, who serves on the Study Committee.
Data collected before any power failure would be saved through a back-up storage following each question for which the device is used, much like the autosave option on computer software such as Mircosoft Word.
“When the power comes back on, it would just be a question of getting that computer up and running and the data would be stored on that particular machine,” Alexander said. MacNeil said computer backups and building generators will keep the computers up and running.
Alexander said the moderator could always decide if a revote were necessary.
Turning Technologies does make a device for the visually impaired, with Braille letters on the buttons and a vibration instead of an LED screen, to tell when information has been accepted by the software. Many federal agencies using them ask that 10 percent of total devices ordered be designed for the visually impaired, but Alexander said that may be too high a percentage for Whitman’s needs.
Voters may change their minds on a vote, but the last answer entered is the one registered with the software and counted when the voting window closes.
No personal information is entered onto the device, Varley said.
“Somehow we’ll have to record the device number,” just to ensure they are returned, she said. But stressed no information about a voter or voting activity is stored in it.
“We don’t want to know how each person votes, that’s the whole purpose of it,” Varley said. “Once you leave the auditorium, the device has to stay in the auditorium. You can’t go in the ladies’ room and vote from in there.”
But the potential for people voting for each other is still a concern, Seele and Varley said.
“There’s no town that’s been using these for more that three or four years,” Seele said.
A by-law change would have to be made to permit permanent use, but a rental trial can be conducted to see how the devices work for Whitman, according to Hayes and Varley.
One person attending the meeting expressed support for the idea, but was concerned about cost. Varley said they are $47 each plus $400 for the receiver, or $7,449 for 150 devices, according to a quote from Turning Technologies. It costs $1,095 to rent 100 devices plus $4 for each added device.
The cost for customized devices, for example, would cost much more.
“We can always borrow [extra] devices, we can also rent them,” she said for Town Meetings that draw larger crowds of voters.
Software is a free plug-in from Turning Technologies.
Resident Joshua Kimball suggested a poll of users after a first trail to determine how voters like it.