The town of Litchfield has rejected a second state offer of a machine to tabulate state and federal election ballots in favor of continuing to count votes by hand.
Litchfield’s rejection was signed Tuesday by Rayna Leibowitz, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, following an earlier vote.
“When the ballot clerks were asked their opinions, nobody, nobody wanted the machines,” said Leibowitz, who serves as a ballot clerk when she’s not a candidate for office. “We just feel it’s too important a process to rely on the machines, and we’d miss out on the social opportunities here. It’s very much a team effort. We have some people doing it for years and years and years, and they absolutely love the process.”
In contrast, officials in Belgrade are enthusiastically cheering the benefits of that town’s new tabulator, which saved nine hours of counting time in the last election.
“It was wonderful,” said Cheryl Cook, Belgrade’s town clerk and registrar. “We were out of there by 9 or 9:30. Normally when we hand-counted, it was 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning.”
About 1,900 people voted in the 2012 presidential election in Belgrade.
Last fall, 67 hand-counting municipalities with more than 1,500 voters were offered a new, state-leased DS 200 tabulator produced by Election Systems & Software. The offer is part of state’s effort to get more accurate returns and to ease the burden on clerks who may have to count ballots into the wee hours of the morning.
Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn said 61 municipalities accepted the offer, while six, including Litchfield, rejected it.
Those six got a second chance recently and had until Friday to respond. Whitefield, Hancock and Eddington opted to get the machines. Winterport and Greenville joined Litchfield in saying no, Flynn said.
Last fall, Doris Parlin, Litchfield town clerk and registrar of voters, listed the pros — among them saving the ballot clerks’ $7.50 hourly wage for counting — and the cons, including a short time frame prior to the November election, for which election clerks already were appointed.
Both Parlin and Town Manager Michael Byron supported getting the tabulator to count state and federal election returns. Parlin said the intent was to continue to hand-count ballots for local offices.
In the November presidential election, clerks were counting the 1,914 ballots cast until 12:30 a.m., Parlin said.
“Litchfield is very much not a technology-oriented group,” said Leibowitz. “There’s the lack of confidence in the technology. We all remember the fiasco in Florida in the presidential election a few years ago. We just don’t want that here.”
Flynn said 400 new tabulators are being phased in statewide, with the machines going first to replace units already in place in 125 municipalities. A federal grant under the Help America Vote Act is being used to fund the $1.45 million lease for the machinery.
“This is newer technology that has been federally certified,” she said. “We wanted uniformity for the towns that were going to be using a tabulator.”
After replacing existing machinery, the Maine secretary of state’s office began looking at towns with more than 1,500 voters that were hand-counting ballots.
There is no cost to the municipalities to use the tabulator for state and national elections and no obligation to use it for local elections.
“I don’t know why you’d pass it up,” Flynn said. “The cost for the state election is completely borne by us. We’re just offering them the freebie. This is like Christmas.”
There is an estimated $370 cost for coding the machines to read any local ballots, and those ballots would have to be specially printed.
“We don’t get any benefit directly,” Flynn said. “I understand it’s a local decision to keep the character of hand-counting.”
Now the tabulators are being offered to 26 towns with between 1,086 and 1,355 voters, Flynn said. So far, 14 have agreed to take the tabulators.
The state also has used money under the same Help America Vote Act to provide accessible voting for every voting place and to create a central voter registration system.
About 75 are already in Maine, and a delivery of 325 tabulators is anticipated today. Flynn said the machines will be tested before their delivery to various municipal offices, which will take place this summer.
Betty Adams — 621-5631