County board members still skeptical about voting machines

Election judges to receive more training for Nov.

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By PHILIP TURNER, Medill News Service

Voters won't only be testing the candidates at the polls on Nov. 7-they'll also be testing the voting system itself.

Steps have been taken to reduce the confusion and chaos that delayed results of county board elections for a week last March, Cook County officials said on Oct. 4, but there isn't full confidence that this go-around will prove to be any more efficient or effective.

"I don't think the general public accepts or understands the problems we saw in the primary elections in March," Cook County Commissioner Peter Silvestri (R-Elmwood Park) said at a meeting of the full county board.

A stir was caused at the meeting when Deputy County Clerk Brandon Neese cited national election experts who said it can take up to four election cycles for new voting equipment to be fully effective.

"I don't want to sound alarmist," said Neese, "But there are things we are continuing to look at before November."

He cited the need for more judges and the complexities of introducing new equipment.

Cook County Commissioner Anthony Peraica (R-Riverside), the Republican candidate for board president, said he was not convinced by Neese's report.

"I'm not inspired with confidence," said Peraica. "I can't imagine that we can't assure the public that these elections are going to be properly handled."

Neese said the problem with the March elections was in the delayed result, not the actual count. He urged the board to be patient with the growing pains of the new system.

"We are here because of Florida in 2000," said Neese of that contentious presidential election. "Just like with anything new, it is going to take some time for this to work perfectly."

Clem Balanoff, the county's director of elections, said most of the March election confusion was caused because precincts were sharing voting equipment. This time, Balanoff, said each precinct will have its own equipment, even if it is sharing a polling station.

Additionally, Balanoff said voting judges are receiving up to 10 hours more training on how to run electronic voting machines than they were given in March. Many judges showed up on election day who were brand new to the process. The county was scheduled to run a small preparatory test of voting equipment on Oct. 9.

Officials said approximately $60 million of federal money was spent in Chicago and Cook County as part of the 2002 Help America Vote Act. Cities across the country were given money to improve voting systems.

That hefty sum lead Silvestri to question why there are still doubts..

"It is not acceptable to say a $60 million system will take four election cycles to work," he said. "There is no exception in the United States of America for any of our voting equipment to be shoddy."

People in Cook County have the option to vote on one of the electronic touch-screens or on an optical scan device, which requires drawing a line to connect an arrow head to the tail of a candidate's name. Punch cards, the root of the 2000 election debacle in Florida, are no longer used.

Balanoff said the goal for Nov. 7 is to have an accurate count and an efficient process.

"When you talk about what happened in March, the only problem was that it took longer for the results," said Balanoff. "While it may have taken a couple extra days, the results were right. That is what elections are all about."

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