National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

Precinct Atlas Eases Voter Registration Worries

By Charlie Ban

Cerro Gordo County, Iowa

West Virginia has its mountains and Minnesota is the land of a thousand lakes, but with all respect to its cornfields, Iowa is best known for its elections.

At the head of the line for presidential nominating contests, Iowa elections have a media-generated cachet unrivaled by other states’ primaries. But with that renown comes an expectation that Iowa’s elections be run with an efficiency that makes them the gold standard for representative democracy.


This screenshot from the Precinct Atlas program shows a series of questions poll workers ask voting registrants.

A state mandate in 2008 allowed voters to register onsite on Election Day, which compounded the demands on election officials when record turnout brought new voters to the polls. Officials were forced to make eligibility decisions on-the-fly for the first time. That meant integrating the new Election Day registration regulations with a litany of existing voter registration laws, the complexities of which left many people relegated to casting provisional ballots for fear of inaccuracies. The Election Day registration system was in place for the primaries, but few new voters took advantage of it, leaving the true test of the new system for the general election.

Cerro Gordo County Auditor Ken Kline stopped into a precinct during the afternoon of the general election to help poll workers process new voter registrations. After two hours of working, he walked away, shaking his head at the inadequacies of the materials he helped develop to assist poll workers.

“We’re asking officials to remember 500 rules, 100 exceptions and a handful of exceptions to the exceptions,” he said. “I don’t think there are a dozen auditors who can do that all day without making mistakes.”

The problem, he said, was not with ill-prepared workers but the complexities of the state’s voting laws.

“Iowa has a lot of complex laws, and they’re good laws, but that doesn’t make my job easy, and they definitely aren’t easy for someone who has to recall them one day a year,” he said.

Sifting through the electoral wreckage afterward, Kline and Management Information Systems Director Scott Tepner decided to develop an electronic pollbook suited for Iowa’s specific regulations, rather than use an existing program suited for another state, like Minnesota, which has a similar Election Day registration law but various exemptions that didn’t apply to Iowa.

What emerged — the Precinct Atlas — downloads voter registration information from the state records to create a decentralized program in each precinct. Creating compartmentalized voter registration pools that do not transmit information back to the state protects the state database from hackers.

Poll workers use a series of prompts, phrased in simple sentences, to determine whether a new registrant is eligible within minutes; the system prompts for the requisite identification forms and issues a full-fledged ballot, rather than a provisional ballot. It also confirms whether the voter is at the correct polling place, and eases the process for basic changes to the voter’s registration, for example, an address change.

The Precinct Atlas debuted during a special election in 2009, and after officials reached an agreement with the secretary of state’s office, Cerro Gordo County’s brainchild is in use in 51 of Iowa’s 99 counties, all at no cost.

The program has been a success, Kline said, because in 2010 his precincts issued far fewer provisional ballots than in 2008.

“Voters are treated consistently,” he said. “Poll workers can better protect each voter’s right to vote and secure integrity of the process.”

It has also been, he said, much easier to train new poll workers.

“I’ve heard more than one person say to ‘just trust the screen,’ which actually gives new workers an advantage over seasoned ones, who still instinctively want to rely on their experience,” he said. “Literally all they have to do is operate a computer with a mouse and ask the questions on the screen to apply the rules correctly.”

The county also debuted, during the 2010 general election, a function to speed result delivery to candidates. At 17 of the 26 Cerro Gordo precincts, the master computer had a cell phone card attached to a USB port, which sent a list of voters who had cast ballots, which were updated into the county database. Candidates could then log in and see turnout statistics current to within three minutes.

“We’re not trying to get rid of poll watchers, but this is a much more sophisticated way of performing get-out-the-vote drives,” he said. “Poll watchers used to do their work with a chair in the polling place, now they can do it from the office and get almost-instant results.”

By copyrighting the software, Cerro Gordo County could recover development costs and keep the program in the public domain.  The county invested $264,000 in development, which includes various staff members’ time, and recouped $30,000 from the state when it sold a license-to-distribute.