Voting Begins for April 5 Consolidated Election

From a press release we issued this morning:

Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten announced that absentee voting for the upcoming April 5th Consolidated General Election is now open at the County Clerk’s Office.    “We encourage anyone who cannot vote at their assigned polling place on Election Day, April 5, 2011 to make every effort to absentee vote in the Clerk’s Office,” said Hulten.  The office is located at 1776 East Washington Street in Urbana.

Absentee voting is now available to all Champaign County registered voters. No excuse is necessary.  Applications for absentee ballots may be made by mail or a registered voter may vote absentee in person in the office of the County Clerk, 1776 East Washington St., Urbana 61802.   If voting in person an absentee applicant’s identity must be verified by presentation of an Illinois driver’s license, Illinois ID card, or another government issued ID containing the applicant’s photograph.

Voters needing to vote absentee by mail may request an application for an absentee ballot by calling our office, mail, fax, through our web site (www.champaigncountyclerk.com), or by email. Requests should be made well in advance of the election in order to ensure enough time for delivery. Voters may contact the Clerk’s office at 217-384-3724 or visit the Clerk’s website at www.champaigncountyclerk.com.

The Consolidated General Election (on April 5, 2011 this year) is the most complicated election we administer.  Turnout is a little lower than a General Primary or General Election, but a few issues create unique challenges for our office for this election.  The first is that candidates file or caucus with their local election jurisdiction, rather than with our office, so we get information regarding who is running for which offices from our Local Election Officials (LEOs) – City & Village Clerks; School, Community College, Library, Park and Fire Protection District Board secretaries.  Our LEOs do a fantastic job, but administering election law is a complex process they face only once every two years.  Inevitably, changing laws and a general unfamiliarity with the process cause lots of confusion and lots of questions.

The second complication is the sheer number of jurisdictions and the myriad ways in which they interlock create the need for more than 270 different ballots just for Champaign County.  We have precincts that, because of the way the different districts overlap voters’ residences, will have nine different ballots cast in their precinct for April’s election.  Creating and managing all these different ballots is a challenge not only for our office, but for our Election Judges in the precincts on Election Day as well.

The third complication is that the April 5, 2011 Consolidated General occurs so soon after the February 22, 2011 Consolidated Primary.  Luckily, we had only one race in Champaign County for the Primary, and it wasn’t a close result.  If we had more races, or any results had been in question, it would have limited our ability to open voting for all voters this early.  The preparations for the Consolidated Primary and Consolidated General also overlap to a great degree, and that is a complicating factor as well.

Regardless of the challenges, we are proud that absentee voting is now open, and hope you will take advantage of this increasingly convenient method of voting.

Voting Begins

For the February 22, 2011 Consolidated Primary Election, which in Champaign County includes just one contest (a Democratic Primary for Alderman in Urbana’s Ward 2), in-person and by-mail absentee voting has begun.

To vote in person, please come to our office, at 1776 E. Washington in Urbana.

To vote by mail, you can request ballots either by calling our office at 217-384-3720, or by submitting a request online.

More detailed instructions for voting absentee are here.  Please email or call if you have any questions, and if you live in Urbana’s Ward 2, please remember to vote.

First Day

I wanted to post a quick hello message on my first day as Champaign County Clerk.

As you know if you’re reading this, Mark Shelden set an incredibly high standard as he led this office for 13 1/2 years, and I am honored to succeed him and greatly appreciative of all his advice and assistance during the past few weeks of transition.

I’ll be posting here regularly, just as Mark did, although my focus won’t be as much on election law, as I don’t yet have Mark’s expertise.  My initial posts will be on our office’s policies and procedures, how the law  impacts them, and perhaps ways we can use technology to better achieve our objectives and serve our County residents more efficiently.

For today, though, I just wanted to say hello, introduce myself, and say “Thank you” to everyone for their support, but especially to Mark and the office staff – the best in Illinois.  Thank you.

The Best Job I Can Imagine

I doubt that I’ll have a better job than being Champaign County Clerk.  This wonderful opportunity to work with a great staff in service to the community in securing one of the most fundamental of our rights has truly been a blessing.

I’m moving on to become the Chief of Staff for Congressman Tim Johnson-IL 15.  I’m moving on to something different, but I can’t say better.

I can’t imagine that the issues that I care about in elections will ever be too far from my mind.   I’ll be following them with interest in my new position.

Thanks to all of you who put your confidence in me to safeguard Champaign County elections.  I have every expectation that the high standards for integrity and efficiency that have been established will be continued and improved upon by successor, Gordy Hulten.

Glitch Explained

Last month, I posted the results of our retab and hand count, and noted that there was an unexplained glitch.  We didn’t drop the issue and now I’m prepared to give some details on what we found out.

First, I want to thank ES&S who came in to our office to do a thorough examination of the ballots in question and proceed to determine what went wrong.  They found the problem.

What stood out on the problem ballots was the rather bold and big initials by the election judge.  At the same time, those same initials were on hundreds of other ballots in the precinct without causing any problem.

ES&S used a “Graphic Dump” on the M100 to show exactly what was being read in each oval on the ballot. What that graphic dump showed was that for the ballots in question, when placed in the machine top first, the M100 read not the area within the oval, but rather the area to the left.  That area to the left corresponds to the place on the top of the ballot where the judge’s initials go within the area that contains the column timing bars.

Essentially what appears to have happened is that when the judge’s initials cross into the timing area within a very limited range and at a very limited angle (that is, very horizontal), that extra line is being read as one of the column timing bars.  No one at ES&S had seen this before, and it is odd enough that it is unlikely that its cropped up many times before.  At the same time, I’d be surprised if we were the first people to witness this.

Taking this information, we decided to have some fun and see if we could design some ballots that would misread but still count votes.   The problem on election day and in the retab did not result in votes being cast incorrectly, but rather in either an unreadable ballot or overvote.

You can see a ballot that we designed as well as the results tape.   We then put the line at the top in the timing area to replicate the error.  If you look at the results tape, you can see that while we filled in the oval for Ed Ott both times on race 4, the machine read those votes as votes for Blankenship because instead of picking up the filled in oval, it picked up instead the words in the candidate name in the column to the left.

As I said, this is a very unique set of circumstances.  Nevertheless, we’ll be changing instructions to judges about the initials crossing into the timing area to prevent it from happening again.

Emanuel Poised to Win Residency Challenge

I noted a couple months ago that I believed that Rahm Emanuel would have “no problem” winning the case challenging his residency in Chicago.  It’s looking like I was correct.

It’s unfortunate for Mr. Emanuel, and the electoral process in general, that this case had to go this far.  The hearing officer’s decision reflects the broad consensus of election law experts in Illinois.  A modicum of work by the media could have presented a more accurate presentation of the law in this issue.  Instead, they used most of their ink citing Burt Odelson, who was clearly biased.

The opinion as issued makes an excellent case that the key element here was whether Emanuel had an intent to return.  He clearly did as anyone with any sense could see.  While helpful to Emanuel, the fact that he was a federal employee was not necessary for him to make the case that he was a resident for that time period.

This case is relevant in Champaign County as we often have faculty who leave the county for extended periods of time.  As I stated before, I think it’s clear that they do not give up their residency.

Unaddressed by Morris was the legal question of whether the definition of “residence” in the Election Code, for purposes of voting, is different than the definition of residence for the purposes of running for office.  I believe this is settled, which is probably why Morris didn’t address it.   I’d cite the Baumgartner decision in particular.

Both parties have submitted differing usages of the term “residence.” However, because  eligibility to run for office is closely linked to the ability to vote within a particular jurisdiction, we will use the definition of “residence” as used within the Election Code for voter registration.

Expect an appeal on this issue, if for no other reason than the attorneys challenging Emanuel seem more interested in publicity than in offering up sound legal analysis.

FPCA Ballot Return Rates

I’ve written a few times about the new MOVE act that sought to improve the voting process for military and overseas voters.   It was well intended, and probably accomplished quite a bit.  But as with any law, it seems, the goals of the drafters were largely unmet.

The first problem was the well documented failure of many jurisdictions across the country to comply with the acts provisions.  With a year to prepare, these failures were inexcusable and largely preventable.

But the provision that I have been following that I believe has received too little attention is the emailing of ballots.

For most people with access to email, it seems to be the answer to most of our needs for speed and effiency.  However, the voting of a secret ballot makes email problematic.  So while we had a number of our FPCA voters request their ballots through email, I always had doubts about whether the process would work well.

For this first election, it seems to have fallen short of expectations for Champaign County.   For this election, we had 213 voters who requested a ballot through email and 583 who requested it through regular mail.  We had a 27% return rate for the email ballots and a 40% return rate for mail ballots.  For military voters, who seemed to be the primary focus of the law, we had 16 out of 41 email ballots returned (28%) against 93 out of 155 mail ballots returned (38%).

From our side of this, it’s easy to see why.  While the email can sound good, in practice it’s not easy.  In the ideal scenario, you would need a printer that could print two different size envelopes as well as a ballot on legal size paper.  Realistically, few people have the larger size transmittal envelope and many don’t even have access to legal paper.  In order to avoid mailing charges, you need to print a special logo on the envelope that is mailed to our office.  Regardless of your ability to have the preferred envelopes and paper, your ballot will need to be remade in our office.

I’m certain that a fair number of people who selected the email method came to find it frustrating and perhaps gave up.  It will be interesting to see how many people switch their preferences for future elections.

It also speaks to the benefits of certifying our ballot even sooner.   There were unnecessary delays at the state level that hopefully will be worked out in the coming years.  By mailing and emailing ballots sooner, we give voters extra time to change their delivery method if they find their first choice to not be good for them.

Overall, I’d call the new law a success for Champaign County voters in the military or overseas.

Retab finds a Glitch

This is our tenth election using the new optical scan voting system.  By most accounts, the system is working extremely well.

Illinois law requires that after every election, we retabulate the ballots in 5% of the precincts as selected by the State Board of Elections.  In our office, we have extended that retabulation to include a manual hand count of ballots in select races.

The results have been gratifying.  In every instance, where we have found a discrepancy between the machine count on election day and the machine count during the retabulation, we have been able to point to particular ballots that were the source the discrepancy, usually a voter marking the ballot with an X instead of filling in the oval.

Such was the case in 3 precincts from this last election.  Clearly identifiable ballots had improper markings that caused a discrepancy between the counts.  For example, you can see in Mahomet 1 the ballot that was marked with a complete vote for Eric Thorsland for County Board at the same time that the voter darkened the edge of the oval for Stephanie Holderfield.  That darkened edge didn’t register on election day, but did in the retabulation, causing an overvote.

However, for the first time, we had two ballots, in Mahomet 5, which alternately counted as overvotes for three offices, as unreadable, or correctly.  After identifying the ballots we continued to run them in a variety of orientations and failed to ever get a consistent outcome.

Examination of the ballots, which you can view on our website, doesn’t show us anything odd about them.  It was part of the same group of 808 other ballots that we received from our printer for that ballot style.  We also tried the ballots in a different tabulator and received the same odd results.  It remains a mystery to us.

To date, we’ve reviewed thousands of ballots by hand.  In fact, with the large number of discovery recounts we’ve done, the number is probably over 10,000.  This is the first time we’ve run across this problem.  It’s such a rare thing, with apparently no way to replicate, that I’m not sure I could even venture a guess as to how to prepare for or prevent it in the future.

But it does speak to the value of redundant counts of ballots and mandatory recounts in the event of close races.

Complete results here.

Two ways to make the media happy

In the election business, there are two things you can do to make the media jump for joy.

The first is to give them quick election results, preferably in time for the 10:00 pm news or at the very least tomorrow’s morning edition.  This comes with the additional benefit of getting the media safely tucked into bed by midnight.

The second is to screw something up in the election so that they have a ready made and easy to report story for the ensuing weeks.

Suffolk County, New York delivered on both this election.

On election night, they reported that the Democratic candidate for Congress won election with a margin of about 3500 votes.  Suffolk County was able to deliver that quick result in part because instead of reporting results from the computer card in each voting machine, they instead opted to have election judges phone in results from polling places.

That expedited process allowed the New York Times to report the next morning:

On Long Island, Representative Timothy Bishop, an eight-term Democratic incumbent, fended off a challenge from Randy Altschuler, a wealthy businessman who invested hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money into the campaign.

The only problem was that somewhere along the line the communication between the election judges at polling places and the Suffolk County Board of Elections didn’t go right.  When the results were put into the computer directly from the computer cards from the polling place, instead of a 3500 vote victory for the Democrat, there was a 400 vote margin in favor of the Republican.  Oops.

Now, officials with the Board of Elections get to keep talking to the media as well as sending attorneys into court to deal with complaints, lawsuits, etc. from both sides in this battle.

I actually feel a little sorry for the folks in Suffolk County.  I know the feeling of trying to produce quick results for the media and candidates.  I’ve stuck to my guns and continue to put accuracy far ahead of speed in reporting results.  It’s actually caused me some grief with the media, but I’ve yet to run into a voter (except candidates and media) who has complained about the time it takes for us to report results.

I’ve also never had to go on television in the days after the election to explain to the people who elect me and pay my salary why the results I gave on election night were wrong.

Our culture today wants news immediately.  In fact, there’s some pretty strong indications that many would rather have wrong news quickly than well researched and documented news later.  For elections, where we need public trust in the results, this can be a dangerous temptation.  But it’s one that election authorities have to avoid.

In Champaign County we take election results off the computer card from the polling place.  We also do a manual audit of ballots cast at the polling place, early voting center, and absentee voting in our office, to make sure that every vote has been uploaded into the computer that reports results.  We also do a manual hand count of some ballots  in selected precincts after the election.

Waiting a few more hours for results seems unbearable for candidates and is a minor inconvenience for the media.  But for voters, having confidence in the accuracy of our election results has a value much higher than anything I can provide to candidates or the media.