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CAMPAIGN COVERAGE '06

 

Voting glitches feared on Nov. 7

More races, bigger turnout will test new machines

 

By John McCormick

Tribune staff reporter

 

October 19, 2006

 

With the November election just weeks away, Chicago and Cook County officials have yet to fix some of the problems that led to a virtual meltdown of the new electronic voting system used in the spring primary.

 

Twice as many voters are likely to head for the polls on Nov. 7, where they will face new voting procedures and test the training of election workers who were often baffled by the machinery in March.

 

The most likely stumbling block for a smooth election remains a small device that is supposed to consolidate totals from two voting systems and transmit the results downtown via cellular technology. In the spring, many judges couldn't get it to work.

 

And it will still be possible for workers to accidentally fry vote totals if they forget to disconnect the power from ballot scanners before data cartridges are removed at the end of the night.

 

"We don't want you to erase any of the memory," warned Gail Weisberg, Cook County's equipment manager coordinator, during a training class last week in Hoffman Estates.

 

Election officials have boosted training and demanded many fixes to the machinery and software since March, when they were humiliated by confusion and delayed results.

 

The possible snags are unlikely to throw an election--there are paper backup systems at most every turn--but they could again slow results from some of the nearly 5,000 precincts.

 

While they suggest major improvements have been made, officials say politicians, voters and the media should never expect the new system to operate as quickly as when paper ballots were used and 90 percent of precincts typically reported results within an hour of polls closing.

 

"Will it be better than the primary? Absolutely," said Tom Leach, a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

 

The experience here this year with electronic voting was one of the earliest, and also one of the most troubled. But problems were also seen in Ohio, Maryland and elsewhere.

 

The snafu potential will be even greater in November, when the battle for Congress and other close races hangs in the balance. It is estimated that more than 80 percent of voters nationwide will use electronic voting machines, with a third of all precincts using the technology for the first time.

 

The changes were required by the federal government after problems in the 2000 presidential election with punch-card ballots and antiquated voting machines in Florida and elsewhere.

 

To satisfy a new requirement that the visually impaired and others with disabilities be able to vote unassisted, Chicago and Cook County purchased touch screens with audio prompts for each polling place.

 

Dual system in each precinct

 

But because those machines were expensive, officials also purchased cheaper optical scan readers for paper ballots, creating a dual system in each precinct.

 

This dual system, at a cost of more than $50 million, requires hardware and software to blend the vote tallies from both platforms into one result per precinct.

 

But the system, the first major hardware change here in more than two decades, buckled under the pressure in its debut, when poorly trained election judges failed to properly deal with ballot jams, locked-up computer screens and other issues.

 

As roughly 25,000 Chicago and suburban Cook election judges are trained, city and county officials are working through the recommendations contained in a 26-page report that deconstructed the primary's problems.

 

The report, prepared by a Florida-based consulting firm at a cost of more than $90,000, found one of the biggest issues was a device that is designed, among other things, to merge totals from the two voting systems.

 

The Hybrid, Activator, Accumulator & Transmitter (HAAT) machine was capable of erasing results from data cartridges if it wasn't first turned off before the cartridges were loaded. Large numbers of election judges were also unable to follow a complex series of instructions to get the machine to transmit results.

 

Mostly operator error

 

"Most of the inability of the HAAT devices to successfully transmit data on election night was due to operator error," the Freeman, Craft, McGregor Group wrote in its report.

 

Still, as the latest version of the HAAT was approved by the State Board of Elections at an emergency meeting Friday, there was testimony that even those who regularly work with election equipment could not get it to function properly.

 

"I followed the steps and the steps didn't take me to where I needed to be," said Dianne Felts, the state board's director of voting systems and standards.

 

Felts said that in one round of testing, 16 of 19 precincts failed to properly consolidate in the HAAT because there were differing versions of software installed in the machines. "It was easily remedied, but it was another human error," she said.

 

Felts also encouraged Chicago and Cook County officials to calibrate the touch screen machines once they are set up in the polls because she found some where it was possible to accidentally check one candidate's name when intending to check another.

 

Election officials say they plan to calibrate the equipment at warehouses before it is shipped and that the machines can be calibrated again at the polls.

 

The frontline of defense against such equipment problems will be a specially trained group of poll workers. Cook County is calling them "equipment managers," while Chicago will have "polling place administrators."

 

The specialists will receive about 10 hours of training, triple what typical election judges receive. They will also be paid more: $500 versus $150.

 

The county is giving the extra training to about 1,600 election judges, one for each polling place. The city, meanwhile, will give the weighty responsibility to roughly 2,100 college students, the only group allowed to apply for the jobs. "We figured they had the time to devote to this," Leach said.

 

Election judges say they welcome the presence of an on-site technology specialist.

 

"I think it will work a little better, if that person is there," said Phyllis Pepper, a South Side resident and election judge since 1996.

 

Most of the changes since March should go mostly unnoticed by voters, with a couple exceptions.

 

Voters will be asked to shade in an arrow next to a candidate's names instead of marking an "X." In March, too many of the other marks failed to be read by optical scanners.

 

Voters will also receive two ballots, instead of one as in the primary. The second ballot is needed because there are so many judges running for retention.

 

Preventing scanner jams

 

Despite the higher volume of ballots, officials promise fewer jams in optical scanners because the ballots will be shipped in cellophane, rather than having perforations for tearing off a tablet, something that created scanner jams in March.

 

Another major improvement is the elimination of doubling up on equipment. In March, multiple precincts that shared a polling place also shared a HAAT, resulting in a traffic jam at the end of the night.

 

Cook County Clerk David Orr predicted that "most" of the precinct transmissions would be successful.

 

On election night, California-based Sequoia Voting Systems, the equipment manufacturer, plans to have as many as 75 people here, including the company's president, to help work through any equipment failures or issues that may arise. The outcome here is important for the company's reputation because the combined Chicago and Cook County contracts are its biggest in the nation.

 

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mccormickj@tribune.com

Copyright 2006, Chicago Tribune