Tuesday, October 21, 2014
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Praise and glitches: five takeaways from implementation of voting centers in Elkhart County

Election Day was not without its problems, but they didn't include acceptance of touch screen voting machines.

Posted on May 7, 2014 at 6:32 p.m.

ELKHART — A day after the debut of voting centers in Elkhart County, the official who heads up oversight of elections here says a review of the new voting procedure is in progress.

Were the 25 voting center locations in the right places? Should they be shifted around? Should some be eliminated? Are votes secure?

All in all, though, Elkhart County Clerk Wendy Hudson lauded implementation of the new voting procedure in balloting on Tuesday, March 6. "First of all, it was overall a success," she said.

One day out from the formal unveiling of vote centers in Elkhart County, here are five key takeaways:

1. Things will be reviewed: There were glitches.

Voting was slow at North Side Gym, the busiest of the 25 voting center locations. That was also where a memory card with 155 votes was inadvertently left after balloting ended, delaying the vote count.

Hudson, though, focused on the many positive comments from voters, who praised the relative ease of voting with the new touch screen voting machines. "We were getting, 'Wow, this is great,' 'Love the equipment,' 'Love the vote centers,'" Hudson said.

Either way, the Vote Center Study Committee will review how voting went Tuesday, with an eye to tweaking the process before the Nov. 4 general election, Hudson said. The committee is the body that helped craft guidelines for implementation of vote centers here.

Previously, voters had to cast ballots at the polling place specific to their particular precinct. Under the voting center format, implemented as of Tuesday in 16 Indiana counties, Elkhart County voters were able to go to any of 25 sites scattered around the county to cast their ballots.

2. Safeguards are in place: Notwithstanding the fact that the North Side memory card was left behind, unguarded, there are means to prevent tampering. Each touch screen voting machine has a memory card and the cards are protected by secure seals. On retrieving the North Side card — one of 268 containing election results here — poll workers found it had been locked and sealed in place, Hudson said.

The voting machines voters used to indicate their preferences, by the way, aren't connected to the internet, thus they aren't susceptible to hacking. The poll books used to track who has and hasn't voted are connected.

3. There didn't seem to be many lost voters: Hudson's office worked hard to spread word ahead of Monday's voting about implementation of vote centers to keep people from going to their usual precinct voting spot only to find it devoid of ballot boxes.

Moreover, signage was placed at old precinct voting spots that weren't used Tuesday with implementation of vote centers to advise wayward voters of where to cast ballots. The clerk's office publicized phone numbers to field queries and, in the end, only four or five lost voters called wondering where they had to go to vote, Hudson said.

Turnout was scant Tuesday, 15.1 percent, even lower than 18.9 percent in 2012 and 18.4 percent in 2010. Still, low turnout is typical in non-presidential primaries, like Tuesday, and Hudson doesn't think the new voting format factored in the showing.

"Vote centers don't change apathy," she said.

4. Voting center locations may be tweaked: Turnout at each of the 25 voting center locations varied. North Side Gym in northern Elkhart was the top spot, followed by Trinity United Methodist Church, also in Elkhart. Lower on the list was Elkhart's St. James AME Church.

The study committee will review the locations, possibly moving the sites around or even getting rid of some of them, Hudson said.

Two locations were relatively close together, the St. James AME Church and Tolson Center voting centers, both just south of the city center. Hudson explained the decision to place voting centers in such proximity, noting that many people in the zone walk. The two locations aimed to make sure voters had an accessible polling place in the neighborhood.

5. Touch screen vs. optical scan debate still has to be resolved: Each of the touch screen voting machines used Tuesday — you tap a box next to the name of your preferred candidate to vote — require a memory card. With 268 of them across the county, that can slow counting after polls are closed compared to previous years. 

In elections past, voters would mark their preferences on paper ballots, putting them in optical scan machines that would tally the votes. Under the format, the county had only 168 machines to contend with in counting ballots, according to Hudson.

Speed questions aside, though, Hudson said the public really seemed to like the touch screen devices. The county had been planning to return to optical scan technology in 2015, but in light of Tuesday's positive response, officials will have to closely consider that.

Though the touch screen technology leaves no paper trail, there's still a way to carry out a recount if needed, Hudson said. In the event of a power loss, each touch screen machine also has a battery that would allow it keep functioning for up to three hours.

Follow reporter Tim Vandenack on Twitter at @timvandenack or visit him on Facebook.


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