Target 8: Transition to new voting equipment imperfect

Target 8

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — May 8 will mark the first time voters in several counties will use new voting equipment.

The machines, first rolled out last August, are a big improvement from the old voting equipment. But documents obtained by Target 8 reveal the transition has not been easy.

Michigan used $30 million in federal funds from the Help America Vote Act and another $10 million in state funds to purchase new voting equipment. Three systems were approved for counties to choose from: Dominion, Hart and Election Systems & Software, known as ES&S.

Voters still mark a paper ballot and feed it into a machine, but each system has a screen that confirms the ballot has been counted, or tells the voter if there is an error on the ballot.

“The machine will tell them that and they get to make the decision whether or not they want to fix it,” said Kent County Clerk Lisa Posthumus Lyons.

“It’s just better technology, better design, and there’s even added security,” added Fred Woodhams, spokesman for the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees elections in Michigan.

There are also upgraded systems for voters with disabilities.

“Overall, we’re very confident in the new equipment, very pleased to have it. I think it’s gone very well,” said Woodhams.

The documents  show that clerks across the state have been working together in groups to identify common issues and solutions.

While most voters haven’t seen problems with the new machines, each system has had its share of issues.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, Target 8 obtained emails from county clerks across West Michigan and the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office. The emails show clerks have been working together to identify common issues and solutions. They also show companies behind each system have done a very good job of dealing with problems as they come up. However, each system has had issues.

DOMINION VOTING MACHINES 

“I’ve never been so frustrated with work in my life,” reads one email written by former Kent County Election Clerk Sue DeSteiguer.

The longtime elections clerk was writing about her frustrations with the rollout of the new voting equipment in October 2017, less than a month before Kent County put the new voting machines before voters.

Kent County is one of nine in West Michigan to select the Dominion voting system. It is also the most selected system statewide.

“Part of the reason we selected this equipment is because our service providers are right here in our backyard,” said Posthumus Lyons.

Grand Rapids-based Election Source is a distributor of the Dominion equipment.

“We wanted to make sure we had an election or two under our belts before going into the big even election year primaries and generals this August and November,” the Kent County clerk said.

Emails show it was a good strategy. Documents before and after the November 2017 election show Kent County experienced multiple problems with the new voting system.

Dominion sent its own staff to train clerks in Kent County, but local clerks complained the information wasn’t entirely helpful and often wasn’t relevant to Michigan elections. The training was so inadequate, Walker city clerk Sarah Bydalek created her own instructions for staff on how to transmit results after the polls close. She then shared those directions with other clerks.

The city of Grand Rapids was one of three communities in Kent County to purchase a large high-speed scanner to count absentee ballots. However, the new machine broke down five days before the election and had to be replaced.

The city of Walker and 10 other communities purchased smaller high-speed scanners for absentee ballots. However, Walker officials learned the smaller scanner couldn’t handle the workload. In December, Kent County reached a deal that allows cites and townships to upgrade the scanner at a discount.

“Anytime you change a system that you’ve been using for over a decade to a new system, no matter how great the system is, there is absolutely a learning curve. And we did see that this past November,” said Posthumus Lyons.

Much of that learning curve with the Dominion system surrounds the new ICX machines. These touchscreen machines are intended for voters with disabilities, but are available to anyone.

In order to prevent multiple votes from being cast, the ICX machines require a poll worker to load the ballot onto the machine with a special card for each voter. The cards are then reprogrammed between voters.

Many counties using the Dominion system had problems setting up the cards and reprogramming them in pre-election testing. Some poll workers were also nervous about reprogramming cards after they were used by a voter, even though that is how the process works.

The Kent County clerk says much of this will change with experience.

“We need to make sure that we are training our precinct workers so that they can have a level of comfort in dealing with the new machine,” said Posthumus Lyons.

Another issue that is still being worked out is the reports clerks print out after the election.

The old system had a single report that gave the Board of Canvassers the information they need to certify the vote. That report isn’t available in the Dominion system.

Clerks were forced to collect information from different reports and move the totals to their own form.

HART VOTING MACHINES

Ottawa and Muskegon counties were the first in West Michigan to use the new voting equipment when they put the Hart system before voters in August 2017.

On Election Day, several voting machines in both counties had a problem with the ballots jamming. The machine would tabulate the votes, but the ballot would become stuck as it fell into the collection bin.

A number of machines were sent back to Hart for repair. It was discovered the paper was too thick and a setting needed to be changed in the machine. By November 2017, the issue was resolved.

ES&S VOTING MACHINES

Kalamazoo County is the only county in West Michigan using the ES&S system. Kalamazoo County Clerk Tim Snow says in November 2017, some voting precincts in Kalamazoo had trouble sending in the results when the polls closed.

All three voting systems allow the results to be sent directly from the polls to the county clerk using a secure modem. However, in Kalamazoo, some polling places didn’t have a good connection.

Snow says in some cases, poll workers had to push the machines around the room looking for a good signal. In one case, he says the workers had to take the machine outside for the transmission to work. Snow says they are working to improve the network.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

“I think the rollout of the new election equipment across Michigan has gone very well. The feedback we’ve received overall has been very positive,” Woodhams told Target 8.

And despite bumps in the road before Election Day, clerks we spoke with agree: The new equipment is more reliable and offer new features to help voters.

“There are functions that can help you identify an issue before your ballot is cast,” said Posthumus Lyons.

And while the ICX touchscreen machines are intended to assist voters who have difficulty with paper ballots, they can be used by anyone.

Posthumus Lyons thinks they will become a popular option for younger voters.

“They’re used to touch screens and advanced technology, so that might attract them to that particular machine,” she elaborated.

The August primary and November general elections will have a large number of races and candidates. Everybody hopes that by then, voters and election staff  will be comfortable with the new systems.

Below is a breakdown of issues identified by each county in documents obtained by Target 8. Most counties stress that the issues were identified and solved before Election Day.

BRANCH COUNTY: DOMINION

On Election Day in November 2017,  the new tabulator in Coldwater Township would only read ballots when inserted upside down.

In the transition to the new machines, Branch County changed it ballots, having voters fill in ovals instead of arrows. Some voters marked too far outside the oval, leading the machine to identify the vote as an error.

Before the election, clerks in Branch County had a number of problems with the ADA compliant machines and the special cards required to make them work.

CALHOUN COUNTY: DOMINION

On Election Day, the new high-speed scanner used by Battle Creek to count absentee ballots malfunctioned several times. When it came time to submit the absentee results, only some of the results transmitted to the county clerk through the new wireless transmission system.

“Ultimately, the idea of a high-speed scanner would be awesome if we did not actually have to run the same batch 5-10 times, getting a different exception each time, then finally the same batch goes thru without an error. But the ‘high’ speed aspect is lost when you have to run the same batch 5-10 times,” Battle Creek Clerk Victoria Houser wrote in an email a day after the November 2017 election.

KALAMAZOO COUNTY: ES&S

The city of Kalamazoo was among the first to use the new equipment by ES&S in November 2017.

Kalamazoo County Clerk Tim Snow says the wireless transmission of results were a problem for some precincts. The system requires a wireless or cell signal to transmit the results, but in some voting precincts the new machines couldn’t get a good connection.

Snows says some poll workers had to move machines around the room, or even outside the front door of the polling place, to get a signal.

ST. JOSEPH COUNTY: DOMINION

St. Joseph County’s response to Target 8’s FOIA request included information compiled while the county considered what system to purchase, but no information about the rollout of the election equipment itself.

VAN BUREN COUNTY: DOMINION

The biggest issue for Van Buren County in the November 2017 election was stray marks on ballots, which cause the voting machine to identify the mark as an error.

KENT COUNTY: DOMINION

Kent County emails reveal multiple problems before Election Day. Most of the issues involve the ICX voting machines for the disabled.

The touchscreens require poll workers to setup the ballot for each voter using a special card. That card must be reprogrammed between voters.

 Kent County and many other Dominion users had issues setting up the equipment to program the cards. These issues were addressed before Election Day. However, some poll workers struggled with using the cards and the reprogramming process.

A total of 14 Kent County communities purchased high-speed scanners to tabulate absentee ballots. Three, including Grand Rapids, purchased the larger scanner. However, it broke down five days before the November election and had to be replaced.

The remaining communities purchased the smaller scanner. On Election Day, the Walker city clerk found the smaller scanner couldn’t handle the number of ballots. In December, Kent County negotiated a discounted price for communities that wanted to upgrade their scanner to a larger version.

Kent County also expressed concerns with the training provided to local clerks by Dominion. They say it was confusing and not relevant to Michigan. The Walker city clerk made her own instructions she then shared with clerks across the county.

OTTAWA COUNTY: HART

During the August 2017 election, Ottawa County and many other users of the Hart system experienced ballots jamming in the machine. The ballot would be read, but would become stuck as it was dropped into the collection bin.

After the election, it was discovered a setting on the machine needed to be changed and counties using the Hart machines had to switch to a different ballot paper.

The jamming issue was solved by the November 2017 election.

MUSKEGON COUNTY: HART

In August 2017,  the city of Muskegon had four of its new machines malfunction.

Most of the issues surrounded ballots jamming. They were replaced that day with other machines to get through the election.

After the election it was discovered a setting on the machine needed to be changed and counties using the Hart machines had to switch to a different ballot paper. The jamming issue was solved by the November 2017 election.

One complaint is the ballot containers on the Hart system do not have wheels, so they are difficult to move around.

NEWAYGO COUNTY: DOMINION

Newaygo County reports no issues from the November 2017 election.

IONIA COUNTY: HART

Using the new equipment for the first time on May 8.

MONTCALM COUNTY: HART

Using the new equipment for the first time on May 8.

ALLEGAN COUNTY: DOMINION

Using the new equipment for the first time on May 8.

BARRY COUNTY: DOMINION

Using the new equipment for the first time in August.

OCEANA COUNTY: DOMINION

Using the new equipment for the first time in August.

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