Rock County prepares to use new vote counters

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Frank Schultz
Tuesday, November 18, 2014

JANESVILLE--Rock County and its municipalities are spending $328,440 on new vote-counting machines. The first change voters will notice will be the ballots.

The ballots will still be paper, and voters will still fill them out with pens. But instead of completing arrows, voters will fill in ovals next to their choices, much like on the “bubble tests” that schoolchildren take.

Voters still will insert those ballots into machines that will scan them, record the votes and deposit the ballots in bins.

The ovals do not have to be perfectly filled in. The machines will record a vote with just 30 percent of the oval filled in, and they also will record a vote with a check mark or an “X” on the oval, officials said.

In other places where these ballots have been used, some people have circled the ovals, and those will not be recorded as votes.

The best pen for filling in the ovals is a black ballpoint, said Kyle Weber, the Wisconsin customer service manager for the company that sells the machines, Election Systems & Software of Omaha, Neb.

Weber trained local clerks and poll workers last week and this week at the Rock County Courthouse.

In addition to the costs of the 51 machines, the county is paying $26,000 for software and a licensing fee of $26,000 a year.

The licensing fee is the same as for the old Optech Eagle Tabulators, which voters used for the last time Nov. 4, County Clerk Lori Stottler said.

Each municipality will pay for its machines, $6,440 apiece. Janesville has 12 machines, costing $77,280.

The cost of the new DS200 ballot scanners is a considerable expense for some towns, Stottler said.

Stottler said she bought the machines now so that towns could expense them on their 2014 or 2015 budgets.

The machines come with a one-year warranty. After that, they will be covered with an annual service contract of $400 per machine per year.

The old machines—some of them nearly 20 years old—were “workhorses,” Stottler said, but some were beginning to show signs of “potential issues.”

One of those issues included two ballots in Beloit that the machines could not count in the recent elections, Stottler said. There was no way of finding those particular ballots, so those votes were not counted.

“We've never seen that on a machine before,” Stottler said.

The machines also rejected some ballots as the wrong ones for their precincts, but re-feeding the ballots got them counted, Stottler said.

Parts are no longer made for the old machines, and in one year, the company will no longer provide support for them, Stottler said.

The new machines have already been used in Dane, Jefferson and three other Wisconsin counties and around the country, including Minnesota, New York City, Cleveland and Miami.

The new machines will transmit their results with a wireless modem. The old machines needed an analog landline to transmit. The difference is the difference between an old phone on the wall and a cellphone, Weber said during training this week.

Verizon has the contract for those vote transmissions, and the eastern half of Rock County is Verizon territory. The western half of the county is “roaming” for Verizon customers, however, and Stottler was apprehensive about how the machines would work there.

Stottler and Weber took a machine to each polling place on the western side and tested. The transmissions went through every time.

That was with a company-owned test machine, however. Stottler, ever apprehensive about a snafu, plans a mock election in January, using the actual machines that will be used at the locations where they will be used.

The new machines record an image of each ballot, which is great for audits, Weber noted. The old machines only registered the marks on the ballots to record each vote.

The new machines also register vote totals on a paper tape, as the old machines did.

The new machines have a computer screen that tells the voter that the ballot has been received, or it rejects the ballot if there is a problem.

The old machine also rejected problem ballots, but a poll worker had to help the voter at that point. The new machine will tell the voter what the problem is.

For instance, the machine would reject a ballot if a voter selects too many choices in a race. The new machine will tell the voter specifically where the problem is.

Wisconsin law allows voters two do-overs to correct spoiled ballots.

The new machines will be used for primary elections Feb. 17 and nonpartisan spring elections April 7. No elections are scheduled for the rest of 2015.

Stottler said she hopes the new technology will help her report results more quickly on election nights.

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