09/23/2014 09:13 EDT | Updated 09/23/2014 09:59 EDT

N.B. Election SNAFU Blamed On Software Glitch, Media Pressure

HALIFAX - The head of the company at the centre of New Brunswick's vote-count bungle says a glitch with software and intense pressure from media outlets are to blame for the late-night glitch that halted the flow of election results for more than two hours.

John Poulos, president of Toronto-based Dominion Voting, says the off-the-shelf program, first used by the company in an election on Monday, failed to properly transfer polling data from a computer server in Fredericton to a website where media outlets were gathering the results.

"Everything was flawless until this happened,'' Poulos said in an interview Tuesday. "It was really quite a shame.''

The delay, during which some votes disappeared from the media website, prompted speculation about the validity of the election. The governing Progressive Conservative party, which was defeated by the Opposition Liberals, at one point called for a manual recount, a demand they later dropped.

Poulos, whose company has extensive experience with the U.S. electoral system and New Brunswick's municipal elections, said the software was used to get the results to the media as quickly as possible.

"This all started because of pressure to report within a quick timeline,'' he said. "To be clear, I'm referring to a general trend that you see in Canadian election commentary. That's one of the themes. ... We hear it all the time.''

In the New Brunswick case, Poulos's company had distributed 713 optical ballot scanners to polling stations across the province, marking the first time the province had used electronic tabulation in a provincial general election.

On election day and in advance polls, voters filled out paper ballots as they normally would, but instead of placing them in a ballot box, they put them in the secure scanners, which recorded the results on a piece of thermal paper and on a memory stick.

When the polls closed, the paper records were used to immediately relay the results by phone to Elections New Brunswick in Fredericton, where they were recorded on a computer server and instantly transferred via an FTP program to the website for the media.

Later in the evening, all of the scanners were taken to regional sites, where the memory sticks were used to transfer the data via a secure network to Elections New Brunswick.

Poulos said the two-step process is aimed at eliminating the errors that can happen during the phone calls.

Things went off the rails when the second set of results, from the memory sticks, were transferred to the media site, he said. For some reason, some of the polling data was inexplicably dropped from that website around 10:15 p.m.

"We didn't know that until we were looking at the results,'' Poulos said.

At that point, the decision was made to stop the flow of results and determine how to fix the problem.

Poulos stressed that the two sets of data in the server were not compromised.

However, he said the snafu that snarled the media's reporting amounts to a serious matter.

"It's not something that we take lightly,'' he said. "This is the type of situation that causes an elevated level of scrutiny, which we always welcome.''

Pauline Beange, a sessional lecturer at the University of Toronto's political science department, said the desire for speedy results should be weighed against the need for accuracy and transparency.

"Two-and-a-half hours in the big scheme of things is very little,'' said Beange, who specializes in Canadian politics and elections.

"There have been repeated problems with e-voting machines, which have been used extensively in American elections. As soon as you have something done by machines, it's very prone to failure.''

Beange said the manual vote-counting process used for federal elections can be time-consuming but it is remarkably accurate, given the high level of scrutiny.

"New technology is always going to pose problems,'' she said. "We are balancing the likelihood of human error against the likelihood of computer error ... I would prefer the old-fashioned method of hand-counting.''


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