Elections NB testing hundreds of tabulators for municipal elections

Staff at Elections NB are working 18-hour days to ensure hundreds of tabulators operate flawlessly in the municipal elections on May 9.

Software errors caused controversy during last provincial election

Elections NB is using 763 tabulators in the municipal elections May 9. (CBC)

Staff at Elections NB are working 18-hour days to ensure hundreds of tabulators operate flawlessly in the municipal elections on May 9.

"We'll just work through until we get it done," said director of operations Craig Astle, who is supervising the testing of 763 machines rented from Dominion Voting.

Next month, when voters choose their candidates for municipal councils, district education councils, and regional health authority boards, it will involve the biggest deployment of tabulators in New Brunswick since the 2014 provincial election snafu, when the reporting of results was delayed by hours.

That mishap got a lot of national media attention, partly because at least two dozen Ontario municipalities had contracted to use Dominion Voting equipment and services the very next month.

Astle said the fault was never in the machines, but was caused by software that has since been removed from the equation.

Delays in results in the last provincial election were the result of software errors, not problems with the tabulators. (CBC)
Astle said the tabulators produced the same results as seven judicial recounts done by hand in the ridings of Saint John East, Saint John Harbour, Charlotte-Campobello, Carleton-Victoria, Shippagan-Lamèque-Miscou, Fredericton North and Fredericton-Grand Lake.

He also said they've worked without a hitch in some 50 byelections in the province that have taken place over the past two years.

Elections Canada could use tabulators next

Astle said the tabulators are being considered for use in a federal referendum on electoral reform and could possibly be deployed across the country within a year.

The machines will likely play a role in federal elections after that, he added.

"I think that if you're doing a preferential ballot or a ranked ballot, you have to have machines to tabulate," he said. "Humans can't do that. So I think they're seriously looking at moving to tabulation technology."

​Municipal elections will cost N.B. $6.1M 

Elections NB has budgeted $6.1 million to conduct the municipal elections, the same amount spent by taxpayers on the municipal elections in 2012.

1.6 million ballots have been printed for the municipal elections. (CBC)
Last week, hundreds of different styles of ballots started being printed by the Taylor Printing Group in Fredericton.

The company will use 30 tonnes of paper to print 1.6 million ballots.

There's a significant redundancy of supply because in some areas – such as Moncton – the health authorities and district education councils overlap.

"We're not sure until a voter walks in, which health network they'd like to vote for in the Moncton area," said Astle.

Elections NB also prints ballots based on 100 percent voter turnout, even though voter turnout in municipal elections is often much lower.

"We have to print as if everybody is coming out to vote," said Astle.

There are 534 different styles of ballots to cover all the different combinations.

"This is ten times the effort of a provincial election," he said. Because voters are allowed some mobility, various machines have to be able to read multiple styles of ballots.

They also have to be able to read those ballots whether they are fed into the machine face down, face up, tail first or tail last.

30 tonnes of paper are used to print the ballots for the municipal elections. (CBC)
It means at least three 18-hour days of testing at the Fredericton warehouse.

When machines are tagged as flawed, they go into a separate room where Dominion Voting employees fix them and send them back into the mix.

Byelections will follow in the autumn

Elections NB said at the end of the nomination deadline of 2 p.m. on April 8, five municipalities had vacancies.

Costs for byelections vary depending on the number of vacancies and their locations and number of returning offices that are required.

The next phase for Elections NB will be a public awareness campaign aimed at getting out the vote.

"We try to emphasize that these are positions that have direct influence, at a grassroots level, where people live," said Paul Harpelle, director of communications for Elections NB. "They have to decide whether to vote. We leave that up to them."

About the Author

Rachel Cave

Rachel Cave is a CBC reporter based in Saint John, New Brunswick.