Leader Blues

Saturday, October 28, 2006

TOP STORY >>Officials vow fast returns

IN SHORT: Early voting gets off to quick start, Lonoke official predicts early night election eve.

Leader staff writer

While iVotronic touch-screen machines were expected to make voting smoother and faster in Lonoke’s primaries last May, candidates traded clocks for calendars and hours turned into days as they awaited results. It was Saturday evening before all votes from the Tuesday election were counted.

Not so this time, promises Larry Clarke, the Republican on the Lonoke Election Commission and the man in charge of programming and checking the machines.

“If you come later than 9:30 (election night,) there may not be anyone left here,” Clarke told a reporter who more than once drove from Little Rock to the Lonoke Courthouse at midnight looking for the results.

Except for paper absentee ballots—which will be optically scanned starting at 4 p.m. Nov. 7—precinct election officials will download electronic results from the touch-screen computers into cassette-like devices, which they will bring to the Lonoke County Courthouse, Clarke said.

That’s instead of the wall of sealed cardboard boxes containing paper ballots in past elections.

Those modules from the individual machines will be plugged into a reader/tabulator at the courthouse and each will be counted in seconds, Clarke said.

In May, ES&S, the vendor that provided the iVotronics, the optical scanner and programmed the ballots, missed several pre-election deadlines and just plain lost some ballot styles that should have been included in the program reading the paper ballots, Clarke said.

The only hold-up this time resulted from the state Supreme Court ordering Green Party candidates inclusion on the ballots. Early voting is off to a great start this year, Clarke said, as for the first time an early-voting site was available in Cabot. By Wednesday, 593 early ballots had been cast, more than half of them at Cabot, the balance at the Lonoke County Courthouse.
Lonoke County now owns 89 voting machines.

“I’m going to deploy 77 for November 7,” Clarke said, apportioned to county polling places at a rate of one for each 200 people expected to vote there.

Lonoke has 53 different ballots, the longest running 10 pages (real big writing) on the touch-screen.

“I’m a lot more comfortable with the machines than I ever was with paper,” said Clarke. “With paper, it’s hard to maintain an accurate count,” he said. Also, you can’t run out of ballots at a polling place with electronic voting.

Election commissioners are finishing up the logic and accuracy checks on the electronics and they’ve conducted four training sessions for the poll workers.

Clarke said his next goal is to get school board elections straightened out. “Schools have been conducting too much of the election,” he said. “I want to get it back to the people who are supposed to do it,” he said.

So far, 7,200 people have voted in Pulaski County, Election Com-mission Chairman Kent Walker said Thursday, with only minor problems.

“The screens are very sensitive,” he said, noting the people can accidentally touch and vote the wrong candidate—a mistake easily remedied by touching the right candidate.

“There are three opportunities to correct a mistake,” he said. “The last thing you want to do is vote for somebody you didn’t intend to.”

We had 50,000 total early votes in 2004, Walker said.

He said he hoped to increase early voting from one-third of voters in 2004 to 40 percent this time.

There were minor delays during the May primaries because ES&S provided the programming and “We didn’t have the programming at the end of the election to correlate the results from the electronic ballots with the paper ballots.”
“We’re doing our own programming this time, so there shouldn’t be a problem.”

Walker said the county had about 175 iVotronics machines and will have at least one at each of 124 polling locations, with about 55 left over. The primary election problems were minor compared to problems so widespread in previous years that they nearly led to prosecution of Pulaski County Clerk Carolyn Staley and to her eventual decision not to seek reelection.

Jacksonville resident Pat O’Brien beat Staley’s deputy in 2004 based in part on his promise to clean up the voter registration rolls and bring voting into the 21st Century—a pledge ob-servers say he has honored.

“The county’s getting its money’s worth out of him,” Walker said of O’Brien. “I think Pat’s doing an excellent job. He’s assisted the commission at every turn and come to every meeting.”

“People want to be able to trust that their elections are efficient and fair,” he said. Walker also noted that any Pulaski County registered voter could vote early at any of the nine early voting sites, not just the one nearest them.

“It’s going really well. So far, 1,538 have voted,” White County Clerk Tanya Burleson said Thurs-day. “Voting was pretty heavy Tuesday. We thought the rain would keep them away, but it hasn’t. It’s been pretty steady.”

All 32 polling places in the county will be equipped with electronic voting machines, the same as they were for the primary. Burleson said she doesn’t anticipate any problems with the equipment, which worked well in May.

The only problem so far, she said, is that some people don’t realize the law against campaigning within 100 feet of a polling place also applies to campaigning within 100 feet of the main entrances to the courthouse while early voting is going on.

That means no vehicles with campaign signs may be parked on the square and no campaign shirts, caps, pens or the like are allowed inside the building.