Sangamon County returns to paper ballots

Bernard Schoenburg

It’s back to the future for voters in Sangamon County.

Paper ballots have replaced the electronic voting system in use since 2006, which has been disallowed because it violated national testing requirements.

“It was kind of like stepping back in time,” said Mark Reynolds, 47, an aerospace consultant from Chatham who voted early this week. “I really got spoiled by the touch electronic thing.”

Still, he said, “It was totally easy to understand.”

Sangamon County Clerk Joe Aiello thinks most voters agree. “The voters know what to do,” he said, based on the hordes who have already cast ballots. “It’s a simple process. We don’t anticipate any problems on Election Day.”

Sangamon County used punch-card ballots for years, but like election jurisdictions across the country, moved away from those cards after the painfully slow and error-plagued presidential election recount in Florida in 2000.

Sangamon County officials purchased touch-screen voting machines from an Illinois company called Populex and used them starting in 2006. After this year’s primary election, however, the State Board of Elections disallowed those machines because they hadn’t been tested as the federal government requires.

As a result, Sangamon County this election is using equipment leased from Election Systems & Software Inc. of Omaha, Neb.

Under the new system, voters are given paper ballots and fill in ovals next to their choices using pens provided by election officials.

Each voting location will also include a machine, called an AutoMARK, which can be used by people who have disabilities. AutoMARK, for instance, can magnify the ballot, offers Braille markings and provides headphones, if necessary.

This is the first presidential election when local voters have been able to take broad advantage of early and grace-period voting.

Ballots already cast by one of those methods have been placed in ballot boxes and will be opened in Aiello’s office on Election Day. Those votes will be added to the ones cast at traditional polling places Tuesday, creating final totals from each precinct after the polls close at 7 p.m.

The signatures and addresses of people who voted in advance are on ballot envelopes, which  could lead to questions about ballot privacy. Stacey Kern, director of elections for the county, said the envelopes will be used to separate the ballots by precinct, but then the envelopes will be turned over.

“That information will not be shown” as ballots are removed from the envelopes and stacked, she said. Judges will make an effort not to see which ballot came from which envelope, she added.

That won’t be a problem on Election Day, when ballots will be inserted directly in an optical-scan reading machine. If the ballot is correctly filled out — with a vote for at least one office — the machine will add one to the number of ballots cast and drop the ballot into the box below the machine. 

Most polling places will have a single optical-scan machine, though Kern said some multiple-precinct polling places will have two. An election judge will be nearby to help, but not so close as to affect the privacy of the ballot, she said.

The county is renting the ES&S machinery on a yearlong contract that began Aug. 14 and extends through the 2009 spring elections. The cost is $423,000, Aiello said, though he expects the county to recoup $85,000 in federal grant money to pay for the machines to help voters with accessibility challenges. The Populex machinery cost $2.7 million, Aiello said.

State’s Attorney John Schmidt said the financial health of Populex is being monitored, but it appears “they have no money,” so it wouldn’t do any good to sue Populex now. The county has several years to take legal action to get money from the company if it appears Populex ever regains the ability to pay, he said.

Bernard Schoenburg can be reached at (217) 788-1540