Iowa’s electronic poll book system stays up to date

In elections, big or small, poll workers have to work out who is a registered voter and how to help them register if not.

All the forms, identifications and procedures for this can be confusing, especially when the law changes. That’s why so many Iowa counties use the Precinct Atlas computer system. It helps check in people so that they can vote.

In fact, about two-thirds of Iowa counties use the system.

“The Iowa Precinct Atlas Consortium is a 28E agreement between, now, 77 counties in the state of Iowa to provide an electronic poll book system that verifies the eligibility of voters before they’re allowed to cast a ballot,” said Marge Pitts, Clay County auditor and president of the consortium.

“They’re not part of the tabulation process,” Pitts said. “They’re part of making sure the voter is eligible to vote in the precinct in which they live. If they’re not registered, the state of Iowa has Election Day registration. They can make them eligible to cast a ballot.”

The Atlas program makes it simple for poll workers. All they have to do is answer simple questions–usually ‘yes’ or ‘no’ — and one screen will come up after another containing simple instructions, Pitts said.

“It walks them through everything, step by step,” Webster County Auditor Doreen Pliner said. “You just have to read the screen. They ask questions, they click the right response and it moves them on to whichever path they have to take from there.”

Calhoun County Auditor Robin Batz is also a fan.

“If they don’t have ID, if the address doesn’t match,” she said, “it takes them through step by step what they need to do.” “They can have confidence everything they do for one voter they’re doing for the next one,” Pitts said. “Then also being assured they’re complying with Iowa law.”

This gives her poll workers more confidence, Pitts said, and gives her confidence that the law is being followed. It also helps voters feel confident their rights are being respected.

“Voters can be assured they’re being treated the same in Clay County as they are in Webster County,” Pitts said.

That was a big selling point when Humboldt County picked up the system a number of years ago, said Auditor Peggy Rice.

“What we find is it treats all voters the same,” said Rice. “That was the main intent. When the voter comes in, everybody checks in with the same system. “

The system is always being updated as Iowa law changes, she said. And the partnership with Iowa State Association of Counties means there’s more support available than when one county managed it.

Precinct Atlas was created in 2009 by Ken Kline, who was Cerro Gordo County auditor at the time, and the Cerro Gordo County IT staff.

Not only was 2008 a record voter turnout year, but it presented new challenges as the first year Iowa offered Election Day Registration, Kline wrote in a paper explaining the creation of Precinct Atlas.

For instance, the list of valid IDs for a registered voter is different from the IDs acceptable for EDR, he wrote. For some voters a utility bill could be used to prove identity, while for others it could only be used to prove residency, and not identity.

“Across the state, one of the results of the new EDR duties was that the precinct officials, despite their best efforts, filled out forms incorrectly or incompletely, filled out the wrong forms, or failed to obtain the required signatures,” Kline wrote. “Another result was that, in an effort to avoid errors, they unnecessarily required many voters to cast provisional ballots or go through the extensive EDR procedures, when a simple change-of-address or proof of identity may have been all that was required for a particular voter.”

“They have given us some excellent tech support,” Rice said. “We had Cerro Gordo County before, and they were very good. They were excellent too, but there were not as many of them to help us, as there are now with the support of the ISAC staff.”

Some of those recent upgrades required newer computers, said Batz. Calhoun County has been using the system for about two years.

“They were Windows 7, so we had to have them upgraded to Windows 10,” she said. “We had to have them encrypted, that is now also part of the requirement.”

Security is vital when dealing with voting systems. That also means physical security, Pitts said — since equipment is placed in voting places which don’t belong to the county.

“The other is cybersecurity, which has much attention these days. It has always had attention as far as we’re concerned, but there is heightened attention now from the general public,” she said.

The data comes from the state’s voter registration system, which is secured by the Iowa Secretary of State’s office, she said. The computers running Precinct Atlas are never connected to the system that counts ballots.

The system is easy to use, Rice said.

“I was afraid at the beginning, because we have a lot of retired people, elderly people that use Precinct Atlas, that are precinct election officials,” Rice said. “You’re just not sure how they will adapt to the new technology with the computers. They were excellent. They took right to it. People would say, it’s my turn, I want to use it. We got to the point where we would say, take turns, make sure everyone gets the chance to use it.”

There’s another way the system helps the voters.

“I think it speeds the process up a bit,” Pliner said. “At the end it prints up the documents for that person to sign.”

Auditors put considerable work and spend considerable money on each and every election, Pitts said. In the end, it’s up to the voters to come out and participate.

“We want everybody to participate. It takes the same effort in an auditor’s office to prepare for a general presidential, as it does for a special school bond,” she said. “It’s like getting ready for a party, and we hope someone shows up. We need voters to participate, because we’re ready for them.”

Webster County signed an updated agreement with the consortium at this week’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

The change came about because the consortium is now associated with the Iowa State Association of Counties, according to Pliner.

Webster County has been using the software for a couple of years.

The new agreement is virtually the same cost as the old one, she said. For fiscal year 2019 the cost is $1,500 plus 2 cents per voter.

Overseeing elections is one of the auditor’s duties, and the Atlas consortium is made up of auditors from all over the state.

ISAC is now the fiscal agent for the consortium, a move which helps it be more stable as the number of counties taking part grows, Pitts said.

“The Iowa State Association of Counties is of course a very stable organization, that all of us as elected officials are affiliated with,” she said. “They’re like the central hub of elected officials throughout the state. Entering into a contract with them seemed pretty logical.”

Before January of this year, the fiscal agent for the organization changed, as different presidents and vice presidents were elected, she said.

“It was decided by the consortium we would be better served by a fiscal agent that didn’t change every two years.,” she said.