Technology Permits a Historic First: Instant Vote Results

* Scan cards, new software allow city to call elections on same night

New voting technology speeded the Cambridge City Council and School Committee elections yesterday, allowing instant result tabulation last night and simplifying the city's notoriously byzantine voting system.

A new computerized voting system provided tentative results on the night of the election, about four days earlier than the past system of punch card-ballots and lengthy hand-counts.

The past delays resulted from Cambridge's system of proportional representation, in which voters rank their choices and votes are redistributed to the next top pick when candidates lose.

Residents and candidates flocked to the ground floor of the Cambridge Senior Center at 806 Mass. Ave. to view the city's first computerized election tabulations. In adjacent rooms, camera crews televised the announcements as incumbents and challengers milled among supporters and onlookers.

"It's a little piece of software that does all the work," Howard Fain, a Cambridge resident who was involved in bringing computerized voting to Cambridge, said of the PRMaster program which enabled the instant tabulation.

"You run the program, and the rest is history."

Votes were cast at 42 polling stations throughout the city yesterday--eight of them on or near the Harvard campus--using new technology adopted by the Cambridge Election Commission this year.

Scan sheets, similar to those used for standardized tests, replaced the old punch-card ballots. The sheets were distributed at polling stations for voters to use, by ranking their choices in numerical order.

Each ballot was then scanned into a memory card using Accu-Vote scanners sold to the city by LHS Associates Inc. of Methuen, Mass. Once all ballots were scanned, memory cards and scanners were delivered by pollsters to the Senior Center. The first delivery occurred at 9:20 p.m., about 35 minutes behind schedule.

At the Senior Center, John Silvestro, president of LHS, entered memory-card information into a computer running the UNIX operating system. Silvestro said the Election Commission had anticipated entering the ballot information sooner, but transit delays between polling stations and the center resulted in the delay.

"It was really just a procedural thing," Silvestro said.

"The original plan was that the memory cards would get here sooner."

Results were first released at 10:50 p.m. last night for the first 20 polling stations that turned in memory cards. At 11:38 p.m. preliminary total results of the number of No. 1 votes received by each candidate for all 42 stations were finally announced.

The results released reflect the No. 1 votes registered by scanners in all Cambridge polling stations, but do not include votes for write-in candidates or ballots that did not register when run through scanners.

"It's not over yet," Teresa S. Neighbor, executive director of the Election Commission, said at midnight. "[The results] are far from being conclusive."

Neighbor said results that will be tabulated and added to the memory cards today--when commissioners evaluate ballots that did not register when scanned--will "balance the numbers out a little more," decreasing the disparity between leading candidates.

At 10 a.m. today commissioners will gather once again at the Senior Center to evaluate City Council ballots and add those not recorded correctly to memory cards for respective polling stations.

The memory-card information will then be run through the PRMaster proportional-voting software system provided for the election by Jerel Software of Albany, Calif. Within moments, official results will be available. School Committee ballots will then be similarly tabulated.

Although last night's results were not final, Election Commission officials were quick to note that much can be determined from current numbers.

"That's partly why some candidates are so thrilled," Election Commission member Lynne Molnar said.

"It's because they know their precincts are in."

The main variable in question in the vote tabulation last night was the number of "spoiled" ballots--those that did not register in the new scanning system at local polling stations.

"They're not really 'spoiled'--voters may have written a number next to the [candidate's] name or something but they're not 'spoiled' in that sense," said Lee Valentine '93, a consultant working in the election with both Jerel Software and with the city.

"They have voter intent," he said last night. "It just needs to be correctly tabulated tomorrow."

The number of ballots to be tabulated today remained unclear last night.

"We haven't heard complaints from those bringing in the results," said Molnar. However, Molnar did say the new ballots confused some, despite demonstrations of the new ballot procedure at all polling precincts.

"If people paid more attention instead of just doing it and saying they understand, this wouldn't have happened," said Sharon Freeman, a Cambridge pollster.

"I told them to play it like you play the Lotto--just fill in the blanks--but a lot of them just wrote in the numbers anyway."