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Published: Thursday, 8/12/2004

Monroe County: Officials still wrestle with voting system

Monroe County clerk Geri Allen, seated, with deputy clerks nancy Chalupka, standing at left, and Laura Senters, who both thought election night vote counting was going to be easy. Monroe County clerk Geri Allen, seated, with deputy clerks nancy Chalupka, standing at left, and Laura Senters, who both thought election night vote counting was going to be easy.

MONROE - There was a moment about a half-hour after the polls closed for Michigan's Aug. 3 partisan primary when Monroe County's deputy clerks Nancy Chalupka and Laura Senters thought that their night was about to go very smoothly.

It was a fleeting moment, and experience probably told them that their optimism was misplaced.

With just two of Monroe County's 63 precincts successfully electronically recorded, the modems that are used to receive voting results from municipal clerks across the county quit.

The delays and technical problems didn't effect the official results of the Aug. 3 voting, only when the results were available to the public.

Within moments, as Mrs. Chalupka called around the state trying to find someone to advise her how to fix the problem, Mrs. Senters was calling all the other clerks in county and pleading with them to drive their results to the county courthouse.

Municipal clerks always turn over in person the ballots and electronic voting record to the county clerk's office after every election, but can wait until the next morning to do so if their results have been successfully received electronically on election night.

"When we tested it, it worked perfectly," a perplexed county Clerk Geri Allen said. "We're always prepared, but we can't foresee everything that will happen. We still don't know why it failed. "

In an era when some municipalities can post election results within a matter of an hour on the Internet while others spend months debating hanging chads, Monroe County's relatively new election system is beginning to show its age. And until Michigan releases federal funds earmarked for election upgrades, the technical problems that delayed last Tuesday's voting results are likely only to get worse.

In June, Michigan's plan to comply with the Help America Vote Act of 2002 was certified by the federal government, making the state eligible for nearly $80 million in federal support. The Legislature also has appropriated $2.3 million in matching state funds.

Most of these funds will be used to replace outdated voting equipment in other areas of the state that don't already use an optical voting system, a spokesman for Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land said. By 2006, every resident will use that technology because it is up-to-date and uniform.

Monroe County was already ahead in election reform because it consolidated all of its vote-tallying equipment more than a decade ago.

"We were one of the first counties in the state of Michigan to have a unified system," Mrs. Allen explained. Most of the townships had been using the large manual lever machines that had been around for decades, but those machines could no longer be maintained in the early 1990s.

"Erie and Raisinville [townships] bought the Accu-Vote system first," the longtime county clerk said. "Then the rest of us got together and said, 'Since we all have to buy new machines, why not all buy the same kind?' "

But the cost of that foresight has been that while the rest of the state is moving to the optical scan Accu-Vote system, Monroe County's voting equipment is now a decade older and subsequently more prone to glitches, Mrs. Allen said.

"Our equipment here is the original equipment. We've never upgraded, and we need to do that," Mrs. Allen said.

The county clerk and her counterparts in Monroe County's municipalities have been waiting for Michigan to release millions of dollars that it received from the federal government as part of the overall election reform package passed after the hotly-contested 2000 election. When that money comes, Mrs. Allen said plans call for upgrades to the Accu-Vote system that will allow the process to run faster and more accurately.

"The upgrade that they've had for a couple years is a scanner where you don't have to use the special pen that we now have to use. Right now, if voters use the wrong pen, their vote might not get read," Mrs. Allen said. "Typically, when we have a recount, candidates pick up a couple votes because people used the wrong pen, or didn't fill in the circle completely, and the machine doesn't register the vote."

But with another hotly-contested presidential election just months away, time is running out to get the money in hand in time to make the upgrades necessary.

"Everybody has kind of said, 'Let's wait for the money,' " Mrs. Allen said. Still, as she and deputy clerks Laura Senters and Nancy Chalupka worked last week to make last week's primary election official, Mrs. Allen said she already had plans to make November's balloting results more accessible sooner. Those prospects include posting election results on the Internet as they become available and studying more reliable ways of getting results from local polling places more quickly and more reliably on election night.

"As soon as we get through the canvassing, I'm going to talk to our technology folks and see if there's anything we can do," Mrs. Allen said.

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