URBANA – Champaign County voters have used the stylus and punch card for the last time.
Champaign County is about to buy a $1.1 million optical-scan system that will let voters know when they have voted for too many candidates – and also will allow for much quicker and highly accurate counting of ballots.
Champaign County Clerk Mark Shelden predicts election nights in Champaign County could be over by 10 or 11 p.m. in the future and that "over votes," where a person votes for two candidates for a single office, will become a thing of the past.
Additionally, Champaign County will buy voting machines for the disabled that will allow those voters to cast ballots by touch screen, and will contain an audio system and keypad to accommodate the blind. With this system, quadriplegics will blow into or suck into a tube (called "sip and puff") to indicate which candidate they favor.
Shelden said he expects the new voting system will be ready for the March 21 primary election. He said he thinks the punch-card system served the county well for more than three decades, but he said it's clearly time for a change.
"I didn't have a problem with the punch-card system," Shelden said. "Our voters are smart and make good use of that system. It was paid for.
"But times change and this is, obviously, a better system."
The Champaign County Board's Finance Committee voted Thursday to approve a $1,096,000 budget amendment to buy the equipment from Election Systems & Software of Omaha, Neb. The full county board will vote on the amendment Oct. 20.
The county will be reimbursed for all but $220,000 of the price through grants from the Illinois State Board of Elections. The state has received federal funding for voting equipment replacement through the federal Help America Vote Act, Shelden said.
With optical scan voting, voters will be given a paper ballot and fill in ovals with pen marks to indicate which candidates they favor. The ballot will be like a sheet of paper, according to Shelden.
After the voter completes the ballot, an election judge will feed it into the optical scan machine, which will in turn feed the ballot into a ballot box. If a voter "over voted" the equipment will kick the ballot out and the voter will have the opportunity to cast a corrected ballot.
That's not an insignificant feature, Shelden noted, as there were 399 such votes for president in 2004.
After the election is over, election judges will bring in a memory card and the paper ballots to the county clerk's office.
Once the memory cards are all in from the county's 97 polling places are in, the election results will be in.
Guy Hampel of Champaign served on an Election Equipment Advisory Committee that advised Shelden about what type of equipment to purchase and what particular proposal to accept.
Hampel said he supported optical scan over the main rival system, computer touch screen, because optical scan creates a paper trail. That's important in case there are equipment malfunctions.
Hampel said he and the 20-member committee went to different Indiana counties that use both types of voting equipment.
"The biggest issue was the paper trail," he said. "Computer touch screen was also very costly."
"I think they (voters) will be pleased, especially if they go into it with a little bit of an open mind," Hampel said. "It's very easy to use."
To help reduce costs, Shelden said his office is reducing the number of polling places in the county from 113 to 97.
He said his office is buying 102 optical scanners so there are five backups.
Vermilion County Clerk Lynn Foster said Vermilion County and the Danville Election Commission have both had optical scan voting equipment since last year and are pleased with the results.
"We've had it for three elections," Foster said. "We think it's great. Compared to punch cards, it's wonderful. It's a low-tech, high-tech system. If all else fails, you've still got a paper trail to count. And it's very easy to teach people to use it."