Relatively smooth election locally

by Mike Kroll

Election Day 2004 was the source of concern nationwide after the debacles in Florida four years ago. Since that much maligned last presidential election many counties across the country invested thousands of dollars to purchase new election machines in hopes of increasing reliability and voter confidence in the system. While we are now beginning to hear rumblings of possible irregularities and outright fraud elsewhere (notably in Ohio where the presidential race was determined) only minor glitches were encountered here in Knox County.

Knox County Clerk Scott Erickson was conducting his first general election since being appointed to fill the County Clerk job vacated by Marc Wong. Wong won the office by 41 votes two years ago but within weeks of being sworn in was subject of an intense investigation into fraud and forgery on the campaign account of Wong's mentor State Representative Don Moffitt. Eventually Wong resigned before accepting a plea agreement approximately one year ago and Erickson was appointed to the post.

Erickson and his staff handled the March primary shortly after he assumed the office utilizing the same punch card system Knox County had used for years. The November 2nd election was the first time new optical scanning equipment has been used by Knox County. The Galesburg Election Commission has used optical scanning equipment for years with generally positive results but minor technical problems and human error are unavoidable. Both election offices experienced such minor problems during the recent election.

"We started the day off badly," explained Erickson. "The machine assigned to Lynn Township did not start up the morning of the election." The biggest surprise to this was that this same machine was randomly chosen for the public test that preceded the election and everything worked just fine during the test. Erickson says that they contacted the machine vendor immediately and the suspicion was that the programmable memory card was at fault. Erickson himself traveled out to Lynn Township to investigate the problem. "When we programmed a new card and replaced the original the machine still would not work. After some more tests it was discovered that the problem was the memory card slot itself. The company rushed a replacement machine to the polling place and we were running fine by 9am."

Erickson assured me that voting was never stopped even when the machine would not work. "We simply had voters put their ballots into the box and the machine kept the unread ballots in a separate compartment. When we had a working machine the election judges simply re-fed those ballots." The rest of the day was comparatively uneventful in Lynn Township. Throughout the day the only other issues encountered at county polling places were questions by voters about overvotes. The new optical scan machines are programmed to kick out ballots that appear to be miss-marked or blank. For example, if a voter marked more than one candidate for the same race that is an overvote. Intentionally skipping one or more races is known as undervoting and these ballots were accepted by the machine unless the entire ballot was blank.

"Whenever the machine suspected a problem the ballot was rejected and the voter offered the opportunity to void the original ballot and re vote. Of course, they also had the option of leaving the ballot as is," said Erickson. In the case of uncorrected overvotes that race would be ignored when the votes were tallied. In some county polling places they encountered a few ballots that jammed in the box chute and had to be manually cleared.

"There were reports of lines at some polling places," said Erickson. "For example the people in Persifer Township had the largest turnout anyone there could remember and some people had to wait in line for ten or twenty minutes. But no where did I hear of lines with much longer waits in Knox County."

When polls closed at 7pm election night human error led to delays for both Knox County and Galesburg. In one Galesburg polling place where two precincts voted the judges must have been in too big of a hurry as polls closed. Reportedly the judges totaled their machine before they fed all of the absentee ballots for those two precincts through. Initially it was feared that all of the ballots cast at that polling place would have to re-fed but Election Commissioner Chuck Gibbs traveled out to the polling place in question and contacted technical support at the machine's manufacturer. They instructed Gibbs on how to reverse the totaling process so the absentee ballots could be processed without the need to redo every ballot.

Back at a Knox County polling place the judges couldn't match the number of ballots to the number of votes recored. This problem led to a delay of hours in completing the nights totaling of the vote but ultimately the judges were able to sort it all out and the county results were completed as midnight approached.

The Day After

By Brian Gawor

It’s Wednesday, and I’m worried.

I’m not unhappy about who won the election. My candidates won’t always win

I’m not worried about John Kerry or George Bush. Today, I’m worried about democracy.

I studied politics in college, and I focused a lot more on how candidates portray themselves in the media and spin their image than the actual mechanics of voting and the simple act of casting ballots. But last week, even before the results were in, I started to think about something more basic than candidate talking points and a "culture war."

I’m talking about the right to vote. And the right to have that vote counted.

There were quite a few obstacles to voting last week. Start with long lines at polling places in some areas of the country, four hours or more in some "swing" states like Ohio. I’m sure some people couldn’t afford to wait and didn’t vote.

Then, we have polling place "challengers," in more than one state. These are partisan volunteers put in place to question voters, and were recognized by many pundits as an influence on the outcome of the election. There will be court cases.

In this election, we had to talk quite a bit about "voter suppression." These are acts to influence turnout in particular communities, usually misinformation or intimidation. Fliers saying you can vote on Wednesday. Imposing bullies near or in the polling places.

And let’s not assume that because we don’t live in a "swing" state, we were immune to this anti-democracy here in Illinois. Just a few miles down the road in Peoria, cards were mailed to some residents with an official-looking badge logo indicating that "voter fraud had been detected" in the area, threatening "felony" prosecution. A clear act of intimidation. Election officials who were interviewed said that every caller to their office who received the card was a registered voter. It looks like someone got a registration list and sent out the cards with the clear intent of intimidating voters.

I myself have said things like "turnout will decide this election." I’m not going to say that anymore. Turnout is not what decides who wins an election. It decides whether we had an election at all.

The election system is not political fodder. Voting and vote-recording procedures are not issues for partisan debate. Voting is a process we pride ourselves on as Americans, and try to export to emerging democracies around the world. Like Afghanistan and Iraq. We’re supposed to be the experts on voting.

So, I am not willing to accept that there were long lines anywhere in the country because we "underestimated voter turnout." We shouldn’t be underestimating voter turnout. We should massively overestimate it for fear that one person would walk away from a long line and not vote. We should have the forward vision to prepare for elections, the resources to staff them, and reliable voting technology in place.

We had an astronaut vote from space. If we can orbit a space station and have a guy email his vote, why can’t we get people in and out of a poll within ten minutes in every precinct in the Unites States?

Respect for voting could have a profound impact on the future of America.

There was a tremendous effort to get out the youth vote for this election. Notables like Sean Combs and Michael Moore, along with lesser-known but equally hard-working volunteers on all sides of the political spectrum registered a record number of young voters. Reports are, however, that the turnout in the young voter demographic remained unchanged from four years ago. Why?

A large national poll out of the University of Pennsylvania revealed that only 62% of voters believed that their ballots would actually be counted. This confidence dropped to 53% for voters 18-29 years old. This is not a presidential approval rating. This is a democracy approval rating. We are failing at our job, and the kids are noticing.

I have hope. We had record turnout. And some people really went out of their way to participate last week. Some excited voters last week in highly-contested states slept out in the cold next to polling places in order to be the first in line and guarantee their chance to vote.

And let me tell you about my 2004 election hero. A student I know from Michigan was unable to get an absentee ballot. Michigan law states that you must vote at least once in person before you can vote by mail, and being just 19 years old, voting in her first election, and enrolled in school here in Galesburg, she had no options. One of my favorite young people, she’s worked hard to pay for her education. She got on the train, went to her polling place back home, cast her ballot, and got on the train back to Galesburg. She gave up about three days of studying and work to participate in the election.

The energy of our democracy is alive and moving. I saw it last week. Let us translate this energy into running honest campaigns rather than suppressing votes. And let’s pay it forward into the attention and resources necessary to make sure that we have an adequate and modern voting process across our country for the next election.

It’s Wednesday, and I have hope for our democracy.