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Madigan frets about new voting machines  

Phil Luciano   Peoria Journal Star
Wednesday, November 2, 2005

One ballot has already been cast on Peoria County's new voting machines.

It's a hearty nay, courtesy of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Madigan, of course, doesn't live or vote in Peoria County. Nor does he directly set policies at the county level.

But he does seem to wield more political power than anyone else in the state. So when he barks, people listen.

And he's worried about the county's choice in voting machines - thereby creating another potential controversy regarding local ballot boxes.

The 2002 Help America Vote Act requires all voting agencies to have equipment in place by January that allows anyone to vote without assistance. New touch-screen machines make it easier to vote for those with vision trouble, those in wheelchairs or paralyzed, or those with motor skills problems.

The city and county will adopt systems that can be used by all voters. The city and county could have saved taxpayers some money by going with one vendor. However, the city and county went their separate ways.

The Peoria Election Commission has been dealing with a hullabaloo over first choice, Populex Corp. of Dundee. As it turns out, an election commissioner owns stock in the company and serves as a member of its advisory board. Small world, eh?

Meanwhile, Peoria County opted in mid-October to go with Hart Intercivic Inc., a Texas firm with voting machines in 22 states. In a preliminary agreement not yet finalized, the county would get 200 new voting machines worth $800,000 - with about $685,000 expected to be covered by federal grants.

But last week, Madigan entered the fray. He sent a letter to County Clerk JoAnn Thomas expressing reservations about new technology from Hart Intercivic.

Why does the Chicago Democrat care? As chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, he wants to make sure voting goes off without a hitch, says his spokesman, Steve Brown.

And in recent years, Madigan's office has been heavily involved (including one lawsuit) with the ion of voting machines by Cook County and Chicago. So he's offering his knowledge to Peoria County, Brown says.

Madigan has no qualms with Hart Intercivic's performance or reputation. However, Hart's machines intended for Peoria County rely on technology never used before.

"I would therefore urge you to carefully consider the efficacy of a full-scale transition to a ... system that has never been used by Illinois voters," Madigan wrote.

On the new machines, voters will make choices electronically. But on the Hart system, voters also would be able to look through a screen to see a printed tape of their picks - sort of a double-check provision.

If the voter agrees with the ions on the printout, the voter pushes an approval button. The votes are sent electronically to a computer, while the printouts are reeled along on a scroll and stored in the event of a recount.

First, however, the system has to undergo a two-tier test: initially by the federal government, then by the Illinois Board of Elections. Madigan worries the testing might not be complete by the March primaries.

Hart spokeswoman Michelle Shafer says the federal check is under way and will be done by the end of November. She expects no problems.

The state test is slated for early December, says Dan White, executive director of the elections board. He says if everything goes well, the machines would be approved by the end of the year.

However, Madigan is concerned the testing might turn up bugs that will take time to fix. Thus, Peoria County could be in a bind come the March primary, says Madigan spokesman Brown.

"This is not an area in which being first in the nation is not a good thing," Brown says. "... Let someone else (outside Illinois) make the mistake."

Perhaps that would be Orange County, Calif., the state's fifth-largest county, which also is planning to adopt the Hart system.

Still, County Clerk Thomas thinks Madigan is making much ado about nothing. She sent him a polite reply in which she shared his concern about ensuring a smooth transition to new voting machines, but she expressed confidence in the Hart system.

"I think I've chosen the best system there is," she says.

Further, she wonders why Madigan also didn't nag suburban-Chicago Kane County, which is planning to buy the same Hart system. To that, Madigan's office said it wasn't aware of Kane County's intentions.

Moreover, Thomas doesn't know why Madigan isn't fretting about the city's consideration of the Populex system. After all, Populex is a new company, so its systems never have been used anywhere.

And here's a new wrinkle: On Monday, the city said it might go with the Hart system. That's not going to sit well with Madigan either.

If this kind of carping were to come with some rookie lawmaker from Rockford, we could blow it off. But you never know what's going on behind the scenes with Madigan, the state's most adroit puppet master.

We'll see how this plays out. Tune in next time for the next exciting (?) episode of "As the Voting Booth Turns."

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