Election mechanics are once again as newsworthy as election results

by Mike Kroll

Even before the now-infamous 2000 presidential election, the Galesburg City Election Commission had already abandoned punch-card voting in favor of optically scanned ballots. That optical system in use for nine years prior to the purchase of new equipment for this year's primary was an unquestioned success. Completing the arrow pointing to your preferred candidate with a felt-tip marker was easy for the voter and the scanners were fast and reliable in counting the ballots. The remainder of Knox County voters however continued to use the older punch-card systems (with few of the problems highlighted in the Florida 2000 election) right up until new machines were introduced in this year's primary. Last week's primary election was the debut of totally new election machines and procedures throughout Galesburg and Knox County and things did not go as smoothly as everyone was accustomed. During last Tuesday's primary election Knox County Clerk Scott Erickson and his voters experienced numerous problems with the operation of the new county election equipment throughout the day and into the evening. Ultimately the county results were not known until after midnight. Delays included a health scare for Erickson himself. The mechanics in the city went smoother but were not flawless and voters in both jurisdictions complained about issues of privacy, notably more so in Galesburg precincts.

In light of the Florida 2000 election debacle, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002. The three stated purposes of HAVA were "to establish a program to provide funds to states to replace punch card voting systems, to establish the Election Assistance Commission to assist in the administration of Federal elections ... and to establish minimum election administration standards." Huge amounts of Federal dollars were made available to local election authorities to purchase new voting technology and one of the ancillary aims of the act was to improve the voting experience for the disabled voter.

Locally this meant that both the Galesburg City Election Commission and Knox County replaced all of their old election equipment and adopted two separate and very different optical scan systems that also worked with a new touchscreen system specifically targeted toward visually disabled voters. While few objected to updating the old county voting equipment, some have questioned why the city abandoned a system that not only had a track record of working smoothly but was well received by the voters and many wonder why the two election authorities didn't agree to purchase identical systems.

Not surprisingly, the whole thing boiled down to money. Without the Federal money made available by HAVA, Knox County simply couldn't afford the optical system long used in the city and while the existing city system was working fine they weren't about to pass up the Federally-funded opportunity to buy all new equipment either. What isn't easily answered is why the two entities didn't agree to standardize on one system or why it is necessary to maintain two election authorities in Knox County at all.

In addition to the new machines, the city also purchased all new fold-out election booths that sit on tables to replace the admittedly more cumbersome stand-up booths with curtains similar to what the county still uses. These new booths were setup side-by-side on tables election day. With short sides and no curtains, many voters felt these booths afforded little privacy as they voted. Additionally, with the new double-sided ballot format with extra large typefaces to aid the visually impaired, an uncovered voter's ballot could virtually be read from across the room. The absence of voter privacy was a significant source of voters' negative comments about the city primary election. Ironically, one of the reasons for the mandate to purchase the expensive touchscreen systems for each polling place was to regain some degree of privacy for the disabled or visually impaired voter.

For example, former Knox County Republican Chair Roger Stockman commented, "These new booths weren't much better than nothing at all when it comes to voter privacy but then again there weren't enough voters around when I cast my ballot to look over my shoulder. This will certainly be a bigger issue in the general election unless some things are changed."

Former Knox County Clerk and longtime elections administrator for the County Clerk's office, Steve Buck, is critical of a number of aspects of election procedures, including the privacy issue.

"Illinois election rules mandate that sleeves be available to all voters to help maintain their ballot privacy but they have never been used much around here. With the old punch-cards a naked ballot wasn't really readable but with these new optical ballots and the extremely large print that's no longer the case. Election judges in both the city and county should be trained to offer these sleeves to the voter and that wasn't done in this primary. Normally the voter would put his or her ballot into one of these sleeves before leaving the privacy of the voting both to carry the ballot to the scanning machine. However, the city's new voting booths are anything but private. They are too close together and no provisions were made for voters waiting in line to get a booth. There needs to be a rope line and sign instructing voters to wait here to vote in the next available booth just like the banks and fast food places do."

And some things will be changed in the General Election this November. Jack Larson, one of three appointed city election commissioners, has held this position for a very long time and seems simultaneously cognizant that some procedures will require changing and somewhat defensive of his commission's methods. "I was actually sick with a very bad case of the flu all election week. I was even hospitalized. But I know from talking with [fellow election commissioner Chuck Gibbs] and [executive director Kathyrun Bradford] that we encountered a few minor glitches and complaints but overall the election ran smoothly. The security sleeves were available but voters seldom ask for or use them. We will be positioning the new voting booths differently in the future and definitely not side-by-side as we did in the primary. These new booths are different and much easier to transport and set up than the old booths and they are generally accepted all over the country."

In a primary, one procedural aspect is necessarily different from other elections, voters must select a partisan ballot. Buck joined others in criticizing how election judges in both the city and county handled this. "Voters must be asked whether they want a Democratic or Republican ballot not simply offered a ballot at the discretion of the election judge or asked Ôhow do you want to vote." Election judges are not supposed to push either party ballot nor are they supposed to look at how a voter casts their ballot but in many cases — with the new ballots and virtually no use of the sleeves — the judges nearest the scanning machine can see how everybody voted."

Another related issue is how these scanning machines are programmed. One of the advantages of scanning a voter's ballots immediately is that a properly programmed scanner can detect if a voter inadvertently over-voted a race or otherwise spoiled the ballot. Nobody has questioned this benefit but there are a number of voters who reported having their ballots rejected by the scanner because they purposefully left one or more races blank. Undervotes such as this are actually quite common and many voters were taken aback when the election judges informed them that races were skipped; in at least one case the election judge inspected the ballot and told the voter his ballot was kicked because he failed to cast a vote in the governor's race. Undervoting is a protected right and all such ballots could be forced through the scanner but is it right to even question a voter for undervoting?

Perhaps the biggest issue concerned the actions of election judges. Both the city and county election offices acknowledge the difficulty in recruiting and keeping trained election judges. Despite the fact that many of the problems encountered in the county were directly traceable to the actions of the election judges Erickson is loath to place the blame there. Instead he admits "we already are planning to redo our training procedures for election judges. There were a lot of changes thrust upon them in a single election and we need to make their jobs easier. I plan to create new illustrated checklists for election setup and post election procedures that will help insure fewer problems." The judges forgetting to bring the memory cards to the Courthouse on election day from precincts in the hinterlands of Knox County accounted for several hours of the delay in counting ballots.

Larson is proud of the training the city provides its election judges but admits that constant changes in equipment and the law makes training an ongoing issue. Buck is critical of both the city and the county for their training of election judges. He thinks it is an "arrogant mistake' for either group to assume that they can do a better job training election judges than the specially trained personnel from the Illinois State Board of Elections. "They have people who have real expertise in election law and understand the workings of a polling place on election day. They are available to conduct training throughout the state at no cost to the local election authority. I would encourage both local election authorities to use these state services."

One key issue that nobody really wants to address is that all of the election judges are aging and few are being replaced with younger adults. Many polling places are entirely staffed by geriatrics, some of whom have difficulty moving around or setting up equipment. The computerized technology employed by the new systems is intimidating to many of them as are the increasingly complicated legal rules. The scarcity of judges is a minor nuisance to the city election commission but it is becoming a major problem for Erickson who had difficulty staffing all of the voting locations across the county.