A few days ago I heard, second-hand, of a brief encounter between an anonymous Vermonter and one of the state’s town clerks. The gist: the clerk was talking about a three-and-a-half-day workshop coming up this week. The clerk saw it as kind of a waste of time and taxpayer money, especially since it would be held in the tony precincts of the Jay Peak resort.
The session iis being held by the Secretary of State’s office, and is designed to teach clerks about the new integrated software system currently being implemented. Okay, fine, but does it really take three and a half days? And why Jay Peak, of all places? Doesn’t that cost a lot?
Questions worth asking, I thought. So I went to the source, Mr. Secretary Jim Condos himself. What I found out is that the unnamed town clerk was telling the truth, at least technically; but there were reasonable explanations for all of it. A little disappointing for political scandalmongers, but a story worth telling nonetheless.
“We are in the process of introducing five modules of software,” Condos told me. The current software is outdated, and “some is not even supported anymore.” The software consists f five separate “silos” that don’t interconnect — campaign finance, lobbyist registration, the voter checklist, elections management, and the absentee ballot tracking portal. The new system is “built on a single platform. They can talk to each other. It’ll be cheaper and more efficient.” And easier to access information. And more secure, and more accurate, and simpler to work with.
So far, two of the five modules have gone online: campaign finance and lobbyist registration. Both have performed “flawlessly,” he says. The others will go live in a couple of months. Good to have the break-in period during an off year.
Okay, fine. Where does the training come in?
This week’s session at Jay Peak is the last of eight held this summer in different parts of the state. Why? So each session would have a manageable number (50-60) of participants, and so clerks could commute to a session in their area. Because overnight accommodation, the biggest-ticket item at resorts, is not included in the deal. Participants get breakfast and lunch, free parking, and online access; but if they want to stay overnight, they have to foot the bill. Or they charge their town, heh.
Speaking of which, let’s get to the payoff. According to Condos, the entire tab for all the sessions is in the neighborhood of $50,000*, and all of it is paid for by federal grants provided under the Help America Vote Act.
*Precise figure depends on total attendance.
All right. But did we really need to do the trainings? And do they really take three and a half days? Condos replies?
“Because the clerks are at the crux of the Statewide Voter Checklist – they maintain and upload their data, manage and track absentee ballot requests, and deal with every other aspect including filing mandated specific data for the Federal Elections Assistance Commission – it is critical that they are familiar and able to use the system easily.”
And our town clerks have vastly different comfort and proficiency levels when it comes to computers. Some of ‘em probably didn’t need much training; others would be lost without it. (According to my Little Book of Unverified Vermont Facts, there are six small-town clerks who still use cuneiform tablets for recordkeeping.) The training sessions cover three days; the extra half day is for those who need additional help.
Well, okay then. But why Jay Peak? And why were other sessions held at quality hotel/meeting centers: the Killington Grand, the Equinox in Manchester, and the Capitol Plaza in Montpelier?
According to Condos, “We needed locations that had the necessary space for up to 60 clerks plus 3-4 of our staff, with each using a laptop, and including breakfast, lunch and snack as well as AV equipment.” There are probably quite a few suitable spots in Burlington, but not so much in other areas of Vermont. Besides, he says, his office negotiated a favorable rate. This is the slow season for ski resorts, after all.
In case you’re wondering about the state’s track record with new IT projects, Condos is optimistic. Partly because two-fifths of the system is up and running, and more importantly because Vermont’s system is based on proven software that’s already being used in other states. He didn’t have to start from scratch like a certain health care portal that shall remain nameless.
Oh, and one other thing. State law mandates that the Secretary of State “shall organize regional workshops for election officials… at least one of these election workshops every two years.” By law, Condos could have billed the towns for the workshops; Condos decided not to because (a) he had the federal money, and (b) he thought it was the right thing to do because it’s his office that’s installing the new system.
To sum it all up, it seems like a reasonable amount of money spent on a very important purpose. It’d be nice to have all our clerks on the same page with the same level of proficiency before we get to November 8, 2016.