Posted on Sat, Apr. 16, 2005
Ballot cover invention may help the blind vote
Inventors plow money back into county coffers
BY JAYNE MATTHEWS
It looks like a cardboard T-shirt. Since Nov. 16, it's been known as U.S. Patent No. 6,817,516 B2.
Madison County voters won't think of the two-sided ballot sleeve as a new invention because they've been using it for four years to protect the secrecy of their computer ballots.
"It's been working pretty well," said County Clerk Mark Von Nida, one of the device's inventors.
The idea also will offset some of the future cost of elections in the county. Profits for its use elsewhere will be used to buy computer voting machines for blind people and others with certain handicaps.
The sleeve works like this: When the voter is finished at the booth, he or she places the ballot into the sleeve. It remains tucked inside the sleeve while the ballot is fed into the voting machine by pushing on the part of the sleeve that looks like the neck of a T-shirt.
The sleeve was invented four years ago by Von Nida and Bob Jennings, the clerk's chief deputy for elections. They nicknamed it the "Taylor Tee" after Jennings' 4-year-old granddaughter, who then was a newborn.
"I don't know if she comprehends it yet, but I've told her," Jennings said.
Von Nida later pitched the idea of including the privacy sleeve with all computer voting machines sold by the county's supplier, Election Systems Software of Omaha, Neb. The company is the world's largest seller of election machines.
"We struck up a bargain that ES&S would use it and Madison County would benefit," Von Nida said. "The deal I struck with them is credit on future purchases."
If the company paid cash for use of the patent, the money would have to go into the county's general fund instead of directly benefiting the clerk's office.
Because governments cannot hold patents, Von Nida's and Jennings' names are on the patent issued by the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C.
"The benefit goes to the county, our employer," Von Nida said.
Jennings said he doesn't mind getting no money.
"I'm just pleased to be in the hall of inventors," he said.
The amount of the credit has not yet been determined because the voting computers for the handicapped have not yet received federal and state approval.
The sleeves already have been included in shipments of ES&S computers to 40 Illinois counties. St. Clair County, which buys computers from a different company, uses sheet ballot covers that cost $460 for 1,810, said Patty Shevlin, chief deputy clerk.
For the spring elections of 2001, Madison County invested $1 each to produce 2,500 of the cardboard privacy sleeves, about 10 for each precinct. The same sleeves are still in use.
"We knew we had a hit after the April election," Von Nida said.
Madison County's previous hit was being the only place in the St. Louis area -- and one of the few in the country -- to adopt computer voting before the error-plagued 2000 presidential election.
The only problem with the Madison County computers in 2000 was that voters had only a manilla folder in which to conceal their marked ballots, Von Nida said. Voters had to insert ballots into computers under the eyes of election workers, who were fascinated by the new voting method.
"The election judges were standing over the machines because they were wanting to see it work. They didn't care or remember how people voted, but I got almost a hundred calls where people were complaining," Von Nida said.
Von Nida and Jennings applied for their patent Aug. 16, 2001. The process took four years and $5,000 in legal fees, which were reimbursed by the county.
The first application for a patent was denied.
"They didn't really understand the concept," Von Nida said. "A (patent) clerk compared it to a ballot pouch that was already patented."
Contact reporter Jayne Matthews at firstname.lastname@example.org or 345-7822, ext. 25.
© 2005 Belleville News-Democrat and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
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