WELLFLEET — The select board voted 3-2 on Oct. 22 to “retire the horse and buggy,” as board member Kathleen Bacon put it, and replace the town’s 95-year-old hand-crank ballot box made of wood with a $5,200 optical scanning machine to count votes.
Interim Town Clerk Jennifer Congel requested the change in an Oct. 18 memo, writing that the electronic scanner would be more accurate and secure than the old method and that parts and service for the old ballot box, built in 1926, “are getting few and far between. What would happen if we did have a malfunction of the box during a primary or general election?”
Congel appeared before the select board with Joel Bergeron, general manager of LHS Associates of Salem, N.H., the company that sells and services the ImageCast tabulator, manufactured by Dominion Voting of Canada. The machine, Bergeron explained, comes with a two-year warranty. He also said that 250 towns in Massachusetts were using it.
“Are these hack-proof from a foreign power?” asked board member Justina Carlson, adding, “That was a joke.”
Bergeron laughed and said, “There’s no internet connectivity. They are completely stand-alone units.”
The New York Times Magazine reported last year, however, that electronic voting machines can be compromised even if not connected to the internet. “Many voting machines that elections officials insist are disconnected from the internet — and therefore beyond the reach of hackers — are in fact accessible by way of the modems they use to transmit vote totals on election night,” wrote reporter Kim Zetter. “Add to this the fact that states don’t conduct robust postelection audits — a manual comparison of paper ballots to digital tallies is the best method we have to detect when something has gone wrong in an election — and there’s a good chance we simply won’t know if someone has altered the digital votes in the next election.”
Irene Daitch raised the issue of security in questioning the select board’s direction.
“I’m astounded to hear about this since there’s such a cry abroad in our country for paper ballots,” said Daitch.
“We won’t lose paper ballots,” replied Congel. “The paper ballot will be fed into a machine and the machine will tally the votes.”
“And people will be tabbing to see if the paper ballots agree with the new machine?” asked Daitch.
“No,” said Bergeron. “Instead of dropping them into a box you will be sliding them into the machine that will count the votes at that time. At the end of the night the machine will print out a results tape.”
Congel also argued the electronic machine was necessary because human vote counters were unreliable late at night. The tabulator, she wrote in her memo, has a nearly 100 percent accuracy rate. “You can’t say that about humans at three o’clock in the morning,” she said.
Select Board Chair Janet Reinhart also claimed that “it was 3 a.m for the last presidential election. There’s going to be some point where people aren’t going to want to do that.”
Neither Reinhart nor Congel was present at the vote counting in Wellfleet after the polls closed on Election Day in 2016. Five different people who were there had a different recollection of the timing that night.
“No way was it 3 a.m.,” said Dick Elkin. “I’d say it was more like 11 p.m.”
Selectman Michael DeVasto, along with Helen Miranda Wilson, voted against purchasing the new tabulator.
“Maybe I’m just nostalgic,” DeVasto said. “We’ve had a machine that has operated for 100 years and is still not obsolete. It doesn’t need much servicing. This machine is [gauranteed] for two years. In five years maybe this is obsolete. I just think it’s unnecessary and I feel like there’s very few pieces of the town and parts of the election process that are still unfettered. I love to feed that old machine my ballot.”
“I understand nostalgia,” said Carlson, “but we owe it to our hard-working volunteers and staff to catch up with the times.” She suggested that those who felt nostalgic about the old box could have it displayed in a historic exhibit. “The people doing the labor have asked for an improvement. It would be inconsiderate to not grant it. Our job is to recognize the workers.”
Daitch was not persuaded. “Your referring to nostalgia and change being difficult for certain groups of people is rather condescending,” she said. “I’d be very proud to have this community stand up and say we’re going to use paper ballots.”
Congel noted that Wellfleet was one of only three towns on Cape Cod still using the old-fashioned ballot box. The other two are Truro and Provincetown.
Cynthia Slade, Truro’s town clerk, said Tuesday that she was not aware of any discussion in that town about switching to an electronic vote tabulator. “Personally, I don’t think we’re at that point,” she said.
Susan Joseph, Slade’s assistant, agreed that there was no desire to scrap the old box. “People kind of like it, to be honest with you,” she said.
Provincetown Town Clerk Darlene Van Alstyne also said on Tuesday that there had been no talk there of changing the voting ritual.
“It’s quite a well-loved tradition in town, the hand counting,” she said. “The volunteers come in, we have pizza, and we have a great time.”