New voting systems will be put to the test

Area voters will see changes at the ballot box this year, especially if they're disabled.

Vermilion County Clerk Lynn Foster said that as a result of the controversial 2000 presidential election balloting in Florida, counties nationwide have had to move to new technologies that mean the end of the infamous hanging chad.

Vermilion and Champaign are among the counties that are going with an AutoMARK system that allows disabled voters to use the same optical-scan ballots as other voters.

The machines have adaptations such as headphones for hearing disabled voters and a sip/puff controller for quadriplegics.

Other changes include a grace period that allows registration in county offices up until March 7 for the March 21 primary.

Foster and Champaign County Clerk Mark Shelden said "several" voters have availed themselves of the grace period.

Absentee voters who are unable to vote on March 21 can vote at county clerk offices before the election. Also, applications for absentee ballots can be mailed in until 4:30 p.m. March 16.

Ballots postmarked by midnight March 20 will be counted if they're received no later than 14 days after the election, according to Iroquois County Clerk Mark Henrichs.

Foster said she wants to see as many voters as possible, but encourages people to register on time.

"My only hope is this will not encourage people to procrastinate," he said.

Shelden said his office has been working extra hours to gear up for the changes.

"This will be a most challenging election, with new equipment and all the different changes in the law," he said.

While only a handful of people have come in on the new absentee ballots, "We have to write a new computer program to deal with a very small number of people," he said.

Henrichs called Iroquois' Diebold Accuvote system, which is a competitor to AutoMARK, "a super system."

"But with anything like this, you keep your fingers crossed," he said.

The 2002 Help America Vote Act mandated the purchase of the optical voting machines, outlawed punch cards and provided funds for new machinery.

What the federal government didn't do, Foster said, is provide money to maintain the machinery.

"The supplies and ballots are much more expensive," she said. "This is a year in which cutbacks in Vermilion County cut employment and budgets. My office has always been a little lean. But we have to meet these obligations under law."

Foster said she could not yet put a price tag on the technological improvements.

"Many requirements didn't come down nearly until the election," she said.

Foster and Shelden said there may be some bugs to work out on March 21.

"But it's better to do it in a primary election than in a presidential election," Foster said.

Shelden said there "will be a glitch or two; maybe some judge will have an issue opening a polling place."

"But the equipment going out there, the judges love it and find it easy to use. We'll catch the vast majority of problems in testing, and hopefully Election Day will go very smoothly," Shelden said.

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