Leader Blues

Friday, May 26, 2006

TOP STORY >> Glitches didn't hit everyone in primary

BY JOAN MCCOY
Leader staff writer

IN SHORT: White County’s vote counting went off with hardly a hitch, while Lonoke County still struggled at week’s end to start counting the ballots. That’s because one county had the funds to prepare for the primary, while the other lacked funds and resources to conduct this week’s voting properly.

The primary in White County came off almost without a hitch, while in Lonoke County, voters and candidates alike are still waiting to see who won. The main reason for the disparity in neighboring counties is a simple one – money.

White County took the entire $272,155 grant it received from the state to buy equipment, added $58,145 to it and bought all new electronic voting machines to take the place of the old paper-ballot machines. So on election night the only ballots that had to be scanned were the absentee ballots.

Lonoke County took half of its grant and bought approximately 40 electronic voting machines for this election, and election commissioners plan to buy the rest over the next two or three years.

While White County election commissioners were talking Tues-day night about how well the new machines were received by voters, Lonoke County election officials were trying to figure out what went wrong. The answer from Larry Clarke, the Republican member of the three-member Lonoke County election commission: The new scanner for the old paper ballots wasn’t programmed to look for every race, so it didn’t see every race.

“We had roughly $300,000 to buy machines, but that wouldn’t have been enough to outfit the whole county, so we opted to install just the ADA-required one (electronic) machine per polling place,” Clarke said. “If we had outfitted like White County, it would have cost $400,000, and the county doesn’t have the money.”

But even if both counties had spent the same amount on new electronic voting machines, county officials say if the equipment had arrived earlier, the technical problems likely could have been minimized. And both counties lay the blame on Secretary of State Charlie Daniels, who didn’t order it sooner.

“The secretary of state was looking at two or three companies, and he couldn’t figure out which one to buy,” said White County Judge Bob Parish. By the time he had decided on Elec-tion Systems & Software and the equipment arrived, there wasn’t time to make sure it was working right.

“The contract for voting equipment didn’t go out until last fall,” Clarke said. “In my opinion, it should have gone out well before that.”

Both ES&S and the secretary of state Wednesday issued statements about the Election Day snafus.

“Despite issues we are still addressing to finalize the tabulation of some results, in general, yesterday was a positive day—2,500 new iVotronic touch-screen machines functioned extremely well – as the polls opened, during voting, and in the tabulation of results,” ES&S wrote. “Based on feedback we’ve received, voters had a good experience with the new system; and poll-worker-related challenges were limited to what we would expect in a first-time use. In several counties where officials used the new system, results were tabulated in record time – in Boone County, for example, results were reported about an hour after the polls closed last evening. This is a solid start to Secretary of State Daniels’ plans to implement the new system, statewide.

“Since we were chosen as the state’s election partner, our goal has been to work with Secretary of State Daniels to vastly improve the election process, and to offer all Arkan-sas voters an enhanced voting experience. Though we believe yesterday’s election was a solid first step, we also recognize there are changes we have to make going forward.

“In that regard, we do have confidence in our Arkansas team. How-ever, we also know that we can always improve the service we provide. We are already in discussions with Secretary of State Daniels and his staff about how we can make the process even better for the upcoming run off and the November election.”

“Secretary of State Charlie Daniels remains very pleased with the overall performance of the state’s new touch-screen voting system,” said the press release from his office.

“As is the case in any election — but particularly in an election like this where several types of voting technology were used — issues are going to arise. This was a monumental change in technology, and the secretary of state’s office expected a certain number of issues related to first-time use of new equipment or the marrying of different types of machines.
“To that end, no matter how well most counties performed, Secretary Daniels and his staff are gravely concerned with tabulation problems, particularly in Lonoke, Phillips and Pulaski counties. The issues experienced by Phillips and Pulaski counties are in regard to old optical scanners that were not programmed adequately to count the paper ballots used in the election. In Lonoke County, programming errors also oc-curred with the new optical scan tabulator. Secretary Daniels is holding the vendor solely responsible for not communicating with the state and with county officials on the programming problems they were having.” While Arkansas overall saw a generally successful election yesterday, the errors and delays in these three counties in particular are inexcusable. Secretary Daniels made that very clear to Election Systems & Software today.