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Computers To Speed Cambridge Elections

CITY & REGION

By Molly Hennessy-fiske, CRIMSON STAFF WRITER

One man, one vote appears simple enough, but in the complex world of Cambridge politics, nothing is as it seems.

For the first time this year, city elections Nov. 4 will be coordinated by computer, with magnetic-image ballots replacing the punch cards used for time immemorial.

The change is a revolution: results will be known on election night and will be recorded more accurately, city officials say. They say the changes will eliminate the occasionally weeks-long wait for final election results, as well as inaccuracies that have spawned litigation in recent elections.

"The cards aren't sensitive enough for many voters, and as a result they were often found to be unreliable and unreadable," said Teresa S. Neighbor, director of Cambridge Election Commission.

In the past, election results were compiled on election day, which falls on Wednesday for the City Council and Thursday for the school board. Results were officially released after a hand count four days later.

But this November, unofficial results will be available at about 10 p.m. election night and official results will be released at noon the next day.

The new system is expected to simplify Cambridge's notoriously complicated election system. Since 1941, the nine city councillors and six school board members have been elected as at-large representatives by all Cambridge voters.

On election night, voters rank their choices among the candidates. To win a candidate must reach a quota of "No. 1" votes, based on the number of eligible voters. After a winner is declared, his or her votes are passed on to the next preferred candidate on each ballot.

But the time involved in tabulating the votes has meant headaches for voters, candidates and election officials alike.

For instance, a special 1995 election to replace William H. Walsh-forced off the City Council after being convicted on 41 counts of fraud-was marred by dispute.

A losing candidate sued current Councillor Anthony D. Galluccio, the winner of the vote, claiming a miscount. The dispute was resolved in Galluccio's favor.

Although the system of "proportional representation" remains, results this November will be tabulated by computer rather than by hand.

The total cost of the new computer voting system is $265,000-$250,000 for the optical-scanning technology ($100 for a scanning unit at each voting precinct) and $15,000 for election software.

Neighbor said that the technology, though expensive, is vital. "The state is preparing to outlaw punch cards, and optical software is the only alternative that works given our voting system," Neighbor said.

The new software system was approved by the Massachusetts Secretary of State's office in July.

The system was tested in May on 500 ballots and again in July before state officials certified it for use in the election.

John Silvestro, an Acu-vote official, said the vote-tabulation software was found to be 99.97 percent accurate in a test count of 300,000 votes.

The Acu-vote software was first released four years ago. Lee Valentine '93-a Harvard Graduate School of Education student consulting for the makers of Acu-vote--said the software has been used the New York City board of education and by California Citizens for Proportional Voting, a watchdog group.

In Cambridge, each ballot will be electronically scanned and stored on a memory card that will be loaded into the software at the Cambridge Senior Center, Silvestro said.

"It's just like the SAT tests-you fill in bubbles and the scanner reads them," Silvestro said. "This is really the only [system] that could handle the Cambridge requirements."

Software developer Jim Lindsay-who is traveling to Cambridge from Albany, Calif., for the election-will analyze the results using his election-analysis program, named PR Master.

The program is sponsored by the Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington.

"We're blazing a path," said Lindsay, who first began working to computerize city elections four years ago, when the PR Master program was barely a year old.

Neighbor said that all transfers of information will occur "in full view of the public and election commissioners," although both Silvestro and Lindsay will work to tabulate the results.

"The state require we run test ballots, which we did," Neighbor said. "We're confident the computers will work and work on schedule."

Although Valentine said the Acu-vote software has encountered difficulties in the past, he attributed the bugs to revisions made by the company in adjusting software to client needs.

He said every type of computer software begins with a beta, or untested, version, that "will almost undoubtedly have errors," but that "every time there's a revision there's a new testing process to test again test again until [it reaches] the most recent version."

"[Acu-vote] is definitely ready for the Cambridge election," Valentine said.

But are Cambridge officials ready for the new technology?

"I've advised them and run them through all the tests," said Valentine.

The real test, it appears, will come Nov. 4.CrimsonGrigory TovbisIN WITH THE NEW: Cambridge resident LUCYE. DOHERTY demonstrates the use of the new computerized ballot box.

In Cambridge, each ballot will be electronically scanned and stored on a memory card that will be loaded into the software at the Cambridge Senior Center, Silvestro said.

"It's just like the SAT tests-you fill in bubbles and the scanner reads them," Silvestro said. "This is really the only [system] that could handle the Cambridge requirements."

Software developer Jim Lindsay-who is traveling to Cambridge from Albany, Calif., for the election-will analyze the results using his election-analysis program, named PR Master.

The program is sponsored by the Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington.

"We're blazing a path," said Lindsay, who first began working to computerize city elections four years ago, when the PR Master program was barely a year old.

Neighbor said that all transfers of information will occur "in full view of the public and election commissioners," although both Silvestro and Lindsay will work to tabulate the results.

"The state require we run test ballots, which we did," Neighbor said. "We're confident the computers will work and work on schedule."

Although Valentine said the Acu-vote software has encountered difficulties in the past, he attributed the bugs to revisions made by the company in adjusting software to client needs.

He said every type of computer software begins with a beta, or untested, version, that "will almost undoubtedly have errors," but that "every time there's a revision there's a new testing process to test again test again until [it reaches] the most recent version."

"[Acu-vote] is definitely ready for the Cambridge election," Valentine said.

But are Cambridge officials ready for the new technology?

"I've advised them and run them through all the tests," said Valentine.

The real test, it appears, will come Nov. 4.CrimsonGrigory TovbisIN WITH THE NEW: Cambridge resident LUCYE. DOHERTY demonstrates the use of the new computerized ballot box.

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