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Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014

Tabulator machines mean no hanging chads this election year

Saturday, January 26, 2008

NEW MADRID -- You won't find any hanging chads in the Bootheel.

"The system that we use is what we've been using in the past, which is optical scan central tabulation equipment," said New Madrid County Clerk Clement Cravens.

In addition to a new optical scan tabulator to bring the county into compliance with the Help American Vote Act mandates that went into effect in 2006, the county also now has Automark voting machines to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

"It allows a voter to touchscreen their choices and it marks the ballot for them -- it does not tabulate," Cravens said. "It is available for those who have handicaps that do not allow them to mark their own ballot."

Mississippi County also uses the same system.

"The optical scan equipment has been tested at almost 100 percent accurate -- like 99.999 percent accurate," said Mississippi County Clerk Junior DeLay. "The primary variable is whether the ballot is voted correctly. The vast majority do OK with it."

"There is a process we go through that verifies that the data in the tabulation equipment is accurate and remains accurate throughout the whole election process," Cravens said. "From the time that I first receive the ballots, there are steps I go through with election judges to verify the data that is in the tabulation equipment is correct and that tabulation totals are accurate."

DeLay said this is something that all chief election officers in Missouri counties must do. "It is required by law," he said.

The step-by-step process in New Madrid and Mississippi counties begins with the Election Systems and Software company.

"They provided us with our tabulation equipment and those Automark (machines) along with the ballot stock," Cravens said. "We have our ballot information for whatever election it is printed locally on those ballots. Copies of those ballots are then submitted to ES&S."

ES&S then sends back a computer disc that is loaded into the county's tabulation equipment.

"The ballots that we send them to program the tabulator are used as a test deck," Cravens said.

The test deck includes multiple ballots from each of the precincts marked so that every candidate and every issue is tested.

A printout with the results from the test deck is sent to the county along with the disc.

"About five to six weeks before the election, I run the same test deck through and run the corresponding totals and at that time verify those totals match the ES&S totals," Cravens said.

The next step in the process, the public logic test, is conducted within five days of the election, according to DeLay.

"That test is done in the presence of a group of election judges," Cravens said. "Those four election judges will witness me turn the tabulation equipment on, run the test deck through, and then print the totals. Those totals are compared to the totals from my original receipt totals, and they verify they match."

The judges then count by hand every race on the test deck ballots and verify the hand count matches the electronic count.

"This ensures everything is functioning as it should be," Cravens said.

"Then on the election night, before we start the count we run that same test," DeLay said.

Immediately following the election, ballots are tabulated for unofficial totals.

"To make those totals official, that same group of judges comes in and the first thing we do is check and make sure that tabulation equipment is still functioning properly," Cravens said.

Within a day or two after the election, the test deck is run through the tabulator again to verify totals match the pre-election test.

Two precincts of the actual election ballots are then randomly selected. One of the precincts is recounted electronically and matched against election night totals while ballots from the second randomly-selected precinct are counted by hand to verify they match the totals that were generated on election night.

"Once that process is completed, then the election results are official," Cravens said.

If totals don't match, officials track down the problem.

"The variable is whether the voter votes the ballot properly," DeLay said. "If the ballot is voted properly, the machines are very, very reliable."

DeLay said he believes most of the incorrectly voted ballots are those filled out by older voters who did not grow up filling in ovals for standardized tests and "sometime stray from the proper methodology. Some still put Xs in the oval instead of filling them in completely." Others, he said, may only make a check mark. Cravens said these markings may be inconsistently counted by the tabulator as they are "right on the borderline of its detection ability." "Then you have a resolution board who look at that ballot and determine voter intent," DeLay said.

As Scott County no longer uses a central tabulator, things are a bit different there.

"We have precinct tabulators," Scott County Clerk Rita Milam said. "It counts the ballot as it goes through. The election judges just bring us back the memory pack and the voted ballots -- we download the results from the memory pack."

While the equipment may be different, officials still must verify it is all operating as they should be.

"We have to do a public test on the machine," Milam said. "No matter what system you use, you have to do that. ... We take every precaution to make sure the ballots are correct and the machines are working properly."

Milam said she is happy with the way the precinct tabulators are working out for Scott County.

"They're wonderful. They are easier for the voter and it takes the load off of us because we don't have to run the ballots through a tabulator here at the courthouse," she said.