Goshen News, Goshen, IN

January 14, 2014

Election officials to talk about vote centers

By ROGER SCHNEIDER
THE GOSHEN NEWS

— GOSHEN — Elkhart County election officials Monday night presented their ideas on why vote centers utilizing electronic voting machines should be adopted, then answered questions about the process.

Vote centers are becoming popular with county officials in Indiana who are trying to save taxpayers money. Under the new system, a few vote centers replace the many polling locations at each precinct. Election officials said the centers also offer more convenience to voters, who may vote at any vote center in the county, not being restricted to the one in their home precinct.

Elkhart County Clerk Wendy Hudson said if the Elkhart County Election Board adopts vote centers later this year, the county government would save about $22,000 per election in poll worker salaries and up to another $120,000 in a four-year election cycle because paper ballot waste would be eliminated. She said the county now has to print ballots to cover all registered voters, but 315,000 unused ballots were tossed in the trash in the last election cycle.

Utilizing optical scanning machines that are tied to digital voter registration lists, or poll books as they are known at the precinct level, would eliminate paper ballots, according to Hudson.

“Vote centers were piloted in three Indiana counties in 2007 and and in 20011 legislation was passed to allow any Indiana county to have a choice of becoming a vote center county,”Hudson said. “There are now 12 vote center counties in Indiana.”

Under state law the county must have one vote center for every 10,000 registered voters, which would require the county to have 13 centers, according to Hudson. But the election board is planning to surpass that requirement by having 24 voting centers.

“We have done our best to make sure no voter has to drive more than five miles to get to a vote center,” Hudson said.

Hudson said the county’s current optical vote scanning machines are 12 years old and are not designed for vote centers and will need to be replaced if vote centers are adopted. She said the machines are not designed to process the 340 ballot styles that will be utilized at the precinct level in the May 6 primary. But new machines will be able to handle that.

The county uses a combination of optical scanning machines and and touch-screen machines for voting and counting ballot cards. And those machines need to be updated, according to Hudson.

“Do we want to replace them for 117 precincts or 24 vote centers,” Hudson asked the audience.

Just what machine would be purchased in the future for vote centers is not known. Hudson said the election board is reviewing machines from four vendors, but none of those have been certified as yet by state officials. Last week the Election Board delayed picking a machine vendor. She added that there is no deadline for state officials to certify new voting and vote counting machines.

She would also like to see the county lease voting machines instead of buying them, so updated machines could be obtained quickly for future elections.

Security of electronic voting machines and the electronic poll book was a concern of one audience member.

“These days, if we think about the NSA spying case and Snowden and some of the things going on, there are a lot of people who don’t have a lot of trust in their government right now, and I think those people are going to be very concerned about using a machine from a major corporation that has already been shown to have problems before when reviewed by some of the top academics in the country,” was how Elkhart resident Tom Butler cast his concerns.

Butler asked the election board if it would be possible to have a security expert review the existing voting machines the county has. He said he was skeptical about voting machines created by corporations instead of open source computer organizations.

Hudson said state law requires the election board hold a public demonstration of its voting machines and anyone can attend those and try out the machines and ask questions. That test will be in April.

“Wouldn’t everyone like to have their own ballot themselves, scan it themselves if they have the equipment available, send it in through a secure website and at that point they always have their ballot, just like their tax return,” Butler said.

Hudson said such an election process is not allowed by Indiana law. “We can only conduct our elections in a manner that Indiana law allows, and we can’t do that.”

Election board member Wayne Kramer told Butler the county’s current touch-screen voting machines will only be used this year, then new optical scanning machines will purchased for use in vote centers.

“Our vendor has assured us that these machines can do a recount; that it can do a paper trail. It will use a lot of paper but it can be done,” Hudson said of the current machines.

After the meeting Kramer and fellow election board member Arvis Dawson said they are in favor of maintaining a paper trail for voting. They said the desire for a paper trail may be generational, with the older generations favoring a paper ballot.

“The vast number of voters are between 60 and 40 years old,” Dawson said. “Not all of them come from the computer era, so they feel better with paper. I feel better with paper. But I will take an e-receipt. You can send me an e-receipt, but when I get home I am going to print that receipt out.”

Kramer said both he and Dawson have gone through election recounts.

“When you go into a recount situation ... there is a far greater reliance upon paper ballots in a recount, where the voter’s intent can be clearly indicated,” Cramer said. “We have not gone exclusively to touch screens in this county because we strongly believe we can maintain that paper trail and do it with vote centers in a far more cost effective way and not throw away hundreds of thousands of dollars in paper ballots.”