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Touch-screen voting to remain an option

Thursday, October 05, 2006
Pioneer Press
by JOHN HUSTON Staff Writer

E-voting is here to stay in Cook County.
Despite problems in the March primary, Cook County officials say electronic voting processes are more accurate than paper balloting and hope to someday make Election Day a paper-free occasion.
Eschewing security worries about collecting and tabulating votes electronically, Cook County Clerk David Orr said difficulties in the March primary, which delayed the vote count until the following day, were not the fault of technology.
"That was more of a judge problem than a machine problem," Orr said. "As frustrating as our delays were in March, as far as we can tell it was the most accurate in history."
Compared with the punch card system, that resulted in the famous "hanging chad" controversy during the 2000 Presidential Election, "the fact is this is far more accurate," Orr said.
As in March, suburban Cook County voters will have the option to either vote on an electronic touch screen or with a paper ballot.
The touch screens keep a paper record of the votes, as well as an electronic backup, Orr said. Paper ballots are fed through a scanner to ensure there were no over-votes that would disqualify it.
Both systems were purchased from California-based Sequoia Voting Systems.
Spokeswoman Michelle Shafer said the company has worked extensively with Cook County and Chicago officials to prevent errors in the March primary from recurring.
"I think you'll definitely see things go much better in November and they will get even smoother as poll workers and everyone else gets used to the new system," Shafer said.
Most secure
"I think electronic voting systems are the most secure voting systems that are out there," she said. "There has never been a successful attempt to hack an electronic voting system in the field. We can't say the same about paper ballot systems."
Illinois is one of 27 states that requires paper backup for electronic voting machines, and one of 13 states that requires a mandatory manual audit of 5 percent of the electronic votes to ensure the machines' accuracy.
"There are lots of checks and balances on the touch-screen systems," Shafer said. "You have the voter verifiable paper trail in Cook County. Results are printed out there. They are also saved to the hard drive, if you will, of that machine and they are also saved on the results cartridge that gets tabulated at the end of the night."
While Illinois requires paper backup and a mandatory manual count, Florida requires neither.
Courtenay Strickland Bhatia, spokeswoman for Verified Voting, a non-profit organization that lobbies for verifiable election systems, highlighted the importance of those provisions.
She said that in Miami-Dade County Florida in 2004, a group of poll watchers compared the number of votes to the number of people signing in to vote.
"They uncovered a machine that uploaded its count three times into the certified count," Bhatia said. "Nobody figured out what happened until it was too late."
Illinois' provisions prevent such an error from happening here.
"Cook County has paper records to discover issues like that before they affect the results," she said.
The delays in the March primary had to do with judges' inexperience with the new processes, but also were attributable to a unique stipulation that votes be tabulated at each precinct. Votes are counted centrally nearly everywhere else in the country, Orr said.
Requiring polling place judges to learn how to transmit the results from two separate machines -- the touch screen systems and the optical paper-ballot scanners -- is another component of an increasingly difficult job.
In the General Election, judges will have the benefit of having gone through the process once before, but Orr also said the county plans to have equipment managers in every polling place.
Equipment managers will receive additional training and be more technologically proficient, he said.
Another difference this time around is that when a problem arises that cannot be handled on-site, it will be handled over the telephone if possible instead of sending a repairman.
"Before, we'd send someone out," Orr said. "Let's see if we can talk you through it. If we can, we save everyone time."
Orr said he hopes to move Cook County to an all-electronic touch-screen voting system in the future.
Having more than one system available at every polling place creates too many possibilities for problems, he said. And hosting a comprehensive paper-only ballot system is no longer a viable option, he said, because to offer accessible voting to citizens with disabilities, touch screen systems are a requirement.
Electronic voting will save money in the long run, Orr added, noting that voters in November who choose the paper ballot will be given two documents -- the political office ballot and another for the 75 judges up for retention.
Along with the fact that Cook County is required to provide ballots in English, Spanish and Chinese, all that paper results in big bucks, printing-wise -- more than $1.5 million per election, Orr said.
There will be 5,000 electronic voting machines in suburban Cook County for the November election -- about two per precinct, Orr said. With a price tag of $2,400 each, they are not cheap, but most of them were purchased with federal money from the Help America Vote Act, passed in 2002.
Lake County, on the other hand, has no plans to utilize electronic voting machines, said Clerk Willard R. Helander.
"I would not sleep well and I did not have any interest in electronic voting from the beginning," Helander said. "There is no way to prove that the ballot is marked the way the voter wanted to. I'm not saying the systems don't work well, but could I prove it to you?"
Lake County instead relies on a paper ballot process with an optical scanner.
McHenry County also has no plans to convert to an all-electronic voting system, though it does have 140 electronic voting machines -- one per polling place -- for disabled voters, said County Clerk Katherine C. Schultz. The primary system is an optical scan paper ballot system, like Lake County's.
But Schultz's problems with the electronic system differ from Helander's.
"It's a cost issue and a space issue, not a security issue," Schultz said.

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