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New vote machines set on scan
Wednesday, April 27, 2005
By Steve Gunn    Muskegon CHRONICLE   

Kimberly Grimm, election specialist at the Muskegon County clerk's office, is certain to get more sleep once optical-scan voting equipment is used throughout the county.

She remembers the 2004 general election, when she reported to work at 6 a.m. Tuesday and didn't go home until 2:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Grimm had to stay on the job to gather vote totals from every city and township, including those that still used the mechanical lever machines. The old machines require humans to gather and add up votes, so the final tallies take a while to get to the county clerk's office.
Now that every municipality is switching to optical-scan voting, that shouldn't happen again. With the new machines instantly totaling votes at the end of the night, countywide results will be gathered and recorded much faster, according to officials.

"I'm so happy," said Grimm, as she viewed the county's new voting machines Tuesday morning. "I've been looking forward to this."

Eighty-two state-of-the-art voting machines were delivered Monday to the Louis A. McMurray Transportation and Conference Center in Muskegon Heights. Clerks from the county's cities and townships started testing the machines Tuesday morning.

The machines will be delivered to cities and townships over the next few days, and every community is expected to be using them by this year's November election.

They will not be ready for Tuesday's election, in which area residents will choose school board members, decide on school financial questions and in a few areas vote on governmental millages.

There will be one new machine per precinct in every community except Fruitland Township, which recently purchased the exact same type of equipment on its own. Fruitland Township will be reimbursed with federal money for its expense, according to officials.

For those who have never voted with optical-scan equipment, the experience will be different but reportedly uncomplicated.

Instead of pulling levers, voters mark paper ballots, cover them with another paper, then feed the ballot into an optical-scan tally machine.

There will be public clinics in coming months to help voters learn to use the equipment. There will also be extended training for city and township clerks.

"Change is always unsettling," said Muskegon County Clerk Karen Buie, the county's top election official. "But we have such a great group of city and township clerks. Even those who are not excited are open-minded and want to do what's right for voters."

The machines, worth approximately $460,000, were purchased with federal money. The dollars became available through the Help America Vote Act, which was passed by Congress in the wake of the controversial Florida voting problems in 2000.

Buie and Muskegon City Clerk Gail Kundinger were on a statewide committee that helped optical-scan equipment for statewide use.

Optical-scan voting technology will be new to about half of the county.

Some communities, like the cities of Muskegon and Muskegon Heights and the townships of Muskegon, Dalton, Fruitland and Laketon, have already been using optical-scan voting equipment.

There will be some advantages that the older optical machines didn't have, according to officials.

For instance, the new machines will read ballots slightly slower, and therefore will be significantly more accurate. They also have modems, so totals can be sent electronically to the county clerk's office.

Paper jams, which sometimes occurred with the older machines, will be less likely, because the ballots now follow a shorter, straight path inside the machine as they're being scanned.

Errors on ballots will also be handled in a more subtle way. With the older machines, the ballot would roll out as usual, but an alarm would sound if there was a mistake. That could cause confusion or embarrassment for the voter.

The new machines will signal errors with a more discreet beeping sound, along with a written message. The ballot will remain inside the machine, until the voter decides whether to let it stand, errors and all, or get a new ballot to vote again.

That will remove any doubt about flawed ballots and help ensure every vote counts, said Connie Weidler, regional sales manager for the manufacturer.

"This is huge," Weidler said. "Voters will leave the precinct knowing their ballot was counted."

Not every clerk in the county is excited about the new machines.

Montague City Clerk Melinda O'Connell said she has many elderly voters who are skeptical about change after so many years of pulling levers.

"We didn't have any problem with the old machines," O'Connell said. "Our people are used to them. Our people have never physically filled out their ballots. Even I'm a little apprehensive. It's a big change."

Norton Shores City Clerk Lynne Fuller said she's also heard from older voters who are worried about the change. But she's convinced they'll come around after seeing how easy it will be to vote.

"At first it may be intimidating to them and (precinct volunteers) too," said Fuller, who was clerk of Muskegon Heights when optical-scan voting was introduced. "I've been telling them all: 'Give it a chance. They're going to like it.' "

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