Equipment to make voting in Champaign County a snap

Equipment to make voting in Champaign County a snap

URBANA — Voting in Champaign County should take less time this fall, and election record-keeping should be more accurate, thanks to a $150,000 federal grant and new equipment purchased by the county.

Instead of working with paper poll books, election judges now will check voters in at polling places using laptop computers. County Clerk Gordy Hulten said the process — from entering the polling place to getting a ballot — could be completed "in as little as 30 seconds."

The only paper at polling places now — besides the ballot — will be a form that voters will need to sign so their signatures can be compared.

No longer having to print a form for each voter will save the county $10,000 per election, Hulten said. And the cost of not having to bind 130,000-plus voter forms into precinct books saves "hundreds of hours of labor," he said.

All of the equipment needed to make the improvements was purchased with a federal Help America Vote Act grant. And the software for the electronic poll books was developed with the cooperation of the county clerk's office and the county's information technology department, Hulten said.

"We were able to develop an in-house solution at no expense to Champaign County taxpayers," he said.

Vendors offered a similar program, including hardware and software, at costs between $300,000 and $500,000, Hulten said.

Purchasing the software alone would have required a licensing fee of around $50,000 a year, he insisted, plus an upfront cost of about $100,000.

"We found, through working with our IT department, 225 nice HP laptops for less than 400 bucks apiece. We bought them through a government contract, so they were discounted. So we got the laptops for less than $100,000," he said. "We spent another $20,000 or $30,000 on bags and mice and wireless hot spots and other stuff. And the grant covers it all."

Each polling place in the county will have at least two of the laptops for processing voters, 14 will have three, and one — two Mahomet precincts that vote at the Lake of the Woods Park clubhouse and where there are some 2,000 registered voters — will have four.

Hulten said he still believes Champaign County will set a record this fall for the number of voters casting ballots. The record is 84,804 in the November 2008 election.

"We need to process voters on November 6th more accurately and more quickly than we ever have before because we're going to have more voters than we've ever had before," he said.

At the 2008 general election "we had lines at polling places and voters felt like the process didn't move as quickly as it could have. This is going to allow us to speed up the process for voters much more quickly," Hulten said.

In addition to expediting the election process, the new equipment will allow for faster and more accurate searches for voter records by election judges, more accurate tracking of the number of ballots issued throughout Election Day so that if a ballot shortage is developing new ballots can be printed and delivered quickly, and a database that will quickly updated so that no one can try to vote twice.

The latter instance, Hulten said, happens on occasion but is almost always the result of a voter who voted early and accidently tried again on Election Day.

But the biggest benefit to election judges is that they'll immediately be able to tell voters if they are at the wrong polling place, and also tell them the correct location.

"Our phones would ring nonstop on Election Day with people calling and saying John Smith is at the wrong polling place, where are we supposed to tell him to go? Ninety percent of the calls we'd get would be for people in the wrong polling place," Hulten said.

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Orbiter wrote on October 13, 2012 at 11:10 pm

Last time I tried to check anything on the CC's website on election day it was impossible to get through. Their server gets overwhelmed on election day. I certainly hope they have planned around that, and don't expect their 225 nice, new laptops to be able to access any information from there. But I'm not optimistic. It's the sort of thing they need to learn the hard way.

And what will these 225 laptops be doing in-between elections?  On the one hand, they can't just sit in storage--prolonged disuse can cause damage. And yet if they're in general use at other times, there's no telling what viruses, games, or damage might occur--that could interfere with their #1 purpose. It's very tempting to have a room full of laptops that you won't let anyone use.  Will voter ID and privacy be protected during these interval periods?

And in 3 years, who will buy the next batch of 225 laptops when these begin to fail?  We all know that laptops are very short-lived.  Even if they were Apple laptops (which have twice the hardware lifespan, or more, than HP laptops) the reality is that in five years the software will be nearing obsolescence and it may become difficult to interface the data on the laptops with the data at the CCs office.  

Wireless hotspots? And how will they connect to the net? What if there is a power outtage? Laptos will continue to function, but hotspots probably won't.  Unless they have backup power arranged--which I'm sure they can't do for the price mentioned.  In any event, I sure hope they're not making our voting process contingent upon some ISPs ability to provide internet service. You know, there are dead zones in town where you might not get a 3g or 4g signal (despite what the phone companies claim).  And we all know how nortiously unreliable most ISPs are.  It's quite a risk to place our elections at their mercy.

Is everything properly validated and verified, with audit-trail functionality? Almost certainly not. 

I hope they have a manual backup system in place.