Election night error keeps people waiting in Waukesha

Kathleen Novack, Waukesha county clerk
Published on: 8/18/2014

If you were following along with election results last week online, you might have found yourself repeatedly hitting the refresh button, wondering why the numbers weren't updating.

There was nothing wrong with your computer. But there was something wrong at the state office that helps process election information. Election results for the city of Waukesha were slowed by a glitch at the Government Accountability Board — specifically its canvass reporting system.

For those waiting to find out who won the tight District 97 state assembly race, it meant no final numbers until after midnight, more than four hours after the polls closed. (Scott Allen was the winner, in case you gave up trying to find out.)

Sudden slowdown

Waukesha County Clerk Kathleen Novack said she received an email at 12:40 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 13, from Michael Haas, elections division administrator of the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, explaining that the GAB was working to address the technical glitch.

Novack said the issue impacted other counties across the state as well.

As part of the normal process, all election results are sent to the GAB's canvass reporting system directly from the municipality, Novack said. The county then receives copies of the canvass reporting system printed report from the municipalities and those are then entered onto the county's website and also into its backup program, done in cooperation with the county's IT Department.

Haas said because some counties, including Waukesha, use this system to tabulate and report unofficial election night results, it was preventing a complete report of votes in the Republican Party primary for lieutenant governor.

Reid Magney, public information officer with the GAB, acknowledged state officials were caught by surprise by the problem, but responded quickly. (After the issue arose, GAB's IT team began working to identify a solution, Haas added.)

'It was working fine on until 11 p.m. when the problem happened and the clerks could not see one race, the Republican lieutenant governor, to enter votes for it,' Magney said. 'Waukesha County officials were on the phone with us immediately to let us know about the problem.'

District 97 snafu, too

But the lieutenant governor's race is the one one that should have been affected by the glitch, Magney said, emphasizing it should not have impacted the 97th Assembly District race results.

'Clerks could continue to enter vote totals for all the other races while our IT team worked on a solution for the Republican lieutenant governor primary, and in fact did do so,' Magney said. 'We fixed the problem in 90 minutes, but in that time the rest of the system was working fine and results could have been entered for the 97th Assembly District — athough clerks typically do not finalize results until all races are entered.'

That appeared to be the case in Waukesha.

'As long as there are blank fields for a ward, the wards results cannot be posted to the canvass reporting system for that ward,' Novack said. 'It was not until the GAB issued their email that any of the affected counties had a directive on how to proceed. Until their response, counties using the GAB/CRS system were in a state of limbo on how to proceed.'

Novack, however, said the county was 'about five minutes' away from using its backup system so the results could show up on the county's website.

'We were working with the GAB, but it finally got resolved,' Novack said.

Race's 'unique nature'

Magney said the GAB believes that at least part of the problem was related to the 'unique nature' of the Republican lieutenant governor primary, not to the fact that counties were using its canvass reporting system.

'It has to do with the unique circumstances that, unlike all other elections, individuals running for lieutenant governor are listed as separate candidates in the primary but not in the general election, and because the primary was unopposed,' Magney said. 'Also, it involved the way the statewide voter registration system and the canvass system prepares for the general election while primary results are being entered, so that general election absentee ballots can be prepared in time for the deadline to send them out to military and overseas voters.

'It was a unique electoral situation that the IT system encountered for the first time.'

Magney, who said the canvass reporting system has worked 'extremely well' for five years without any problems, added his team is working on addressing issues so there are no problems in the future.

'We make constant improvements to our IT systems and, while we did not anticipate this as a problem before it occurred, our staff addressed it as soon as possible and we were up front in communicating the issue,' Magney said. 'Our team is working to ensure no similar problems occur on future election nights.'