Electronic Voter Check-in Makes Its Debut At Special Town Meeting

By: Tim Wood

Voters were checked-in at the Jan. 4 special town meeting using an iPad system for the first time. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – For the 680 voters who attended the Jan. 4 special town meeting, the process of checking in was just a little bit different.

For one thing, rather than lining up alphabetically by last name, voters could check in at any of six stations, which greatly expedited the process. And at each of those stations, for the first time, iPads were used to check everyone in.

It was the first time the Poll Pad system was used at town meeting, although it was used in early voting in 2016 and 2018, according to Town Clerk Julie Smith. It's an example of technology streamlining a system that has, at least in Chatham, been paper-based since, well, forever.

The town clerk's office purchased two of the Poll Pad systems—which consist of an iPad, a combined stand and backup battery, a printer and a carrying case—before the 2016 election. Smith said she'd seen them at conferences and spoken with other town clerks who were using the system and received positive reports. Each of the units costs about $1,500.

The iPads come loaded with software that ties into the state election database through a secure wireless connection. Poll workers can easily call up a voter by typing in a name; the system can also scan the barcode on a driver's license to bring up the voter's information. Smith pointed out that in Massachusetts, voters don't have to show identification to check in to vote, so scanning a license is optional. The devices are networked so that someone can't register twice at different stations. The process takes just a few seconds. Training people to use them was also easy, taking just a few minutes, she said.

Previously, voters checking in to town meeting provided their name, which the poll worker then had to look up in a printed book and check off. After the meeting, Smith said, she and Assistant Town Clerk Paula Tobin had to go through each book and scan each voter whose name is checked off to double check the voter total. With the Poll Pads, the data is exported to the state system which does the checking automatically.

“It's much more user friendly and much quicker,” she said.

For the recent town meeting, Smith borrowed four Poll Pads from LHS Associates, the New Hampshire company that sells them, as a pilot program. It passed with flying colors.

“They're just great,” she said. “We really like checking in people like this, and voters seemed to like them.”

Money was appropriated in this year's budget to purchase four more Poll Pads, which run about $1,200 or so without printers. Smith said she plans to make the purchase by May so they can be used to check voters in at the annual town meeting.

According to the LHS website, 53 Massachusetts communities use Poll Pads, including several Cape towns. Nationwide, the systems are used in 370 jurisdictions in 18 states.

Smith said the system will be used to check in voters during early voting for the upcoming presidential primary, Feb. 24 to 28. The Poll Pads helped reduce waiting time during early voting in the 2016 presidential election, the first time it was allowed in Massachusetts. Smith said 1,659 voters cast early ballots then; in early voting for the 2018 election, 1,232 voters cast ballots. “Right out of the gate it was fantastic,” she said, cutting down on wait time and reducing clutter. She plans to use the Poll Pads at the May annual town meeting and during early voting for the November presidential election.

Because of state election laws, however, the system cannot be used for regular elections, when voters not only check in but also check out. “The rules and laws are different for elections and town meeting,” Smith said. The town will continue to use the manual check-in system at elections, she said, but she hopes at some point the state will change the rules so that the Poll Pads can be used.