As Chicago and nearby counties unveil new touch screen voting machines ahead of the state’s March 17 primary election, polling locations are becoming more high-tech than ever before as they work to guard against threats.
(TNS) — When Rudy Altergott dropped by an early voting location in Chicago, he encountered technology he hadn’t seen before: a touch-screen device that allowed him to make his selections for the presidential primary with a tap of the finger.
The machine printed a receipt that included a QR code — a type of bar code that contains a digital summary of Altergott’s ballot — and a written list of the candidates he chose, including the races he left blank. After he reviewed the paper slip, he fed it into a scanner to store the results.
“I thought it was a little bit more user-friendly,” said Altergott, 29, who lives in the Gold Coast neighborhood. “I felt more comfortable with it, and I felt like it was easier to use and more pragmatic.”
As election authorities in Chicago and Cook County unveil the new touch screens ahead of the March 17 primary election, polling locations are becoming more high-tech than ever before. The costly equipment was rolled out to combat the risk of election interference and to make voting more accessible for those who have difficulty filling out a ballot by hand.
Polling locations in Lake, McHenry and DuPage counties also use voting machines, known as ballot marking devices, but those are made by different vendors.
While some applaud the changes, they have prompted one citizen’s group that focuses on election integrity to boycott early voting, saying that residents should wait to vote on primary election day when paper ballots will be supplied. Most early voting sites don’t offer paper ballots and require voters to use the electronic devices.
The group, called Clean Count Cook County, raised concerns that the QR codes, which voters can’t review for themselves, are susceptible to tampering. Citing similar cybersecurity considerations, the state official overseeing elections in Colorado decided in September to ban the use of such codes on their ballots.
But election officials in the Chicago area dismissed the concerns, saying there is no evidence that bar codes are getting hacked. Jim Allen, a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections, said the touch screens used by the city have been certified through a series of state and federal tests to ensure accuracy. In addition, he said, the scanned paper receipts capture the image of the ballot, which can be used to verify results in the event of a recount.
“This has been tested four different ways,” Allen said. “This isn’t some sort of app that was created three weeks ago like Iowa."
Election security has become a top priority in municipalities across Illinois since Russian hackers gained access to the state’s voter registration database in June 2016. While the hackers were able to view personal information for about 76,000 Illinois voters — including names, addresses and partial Social Security numbers — there’s no evidence of voting results being manipulated.
Early voting continues through March 16. Starting Monday, an additional 52 early voting sites in the city and 50 in suburban Cook County will open. Here’s what else you need to know about the early voting period and the ballot marking devices.
Why aren’t paper ballots used during early voting?
On primary day, each local precinct carries ballots that are specific to that precinct and to each political party. Those ballots contain local, state and federal race based on geographic boundaries.
But during early voting, when far fewer polling sites are in use, voters can cast ballots at any active polling place, so officials must have all the different ballot variations on hand.
The machines enable officials to properly store and easily generate all the different ballots, Allen said. They also allow voters to access ballots in six languages, he said.
“We can’t have a library of 1,100 ballot styles on the shelves, unsecured, at night, after we close and know which voters are going to come from which neighborhoods (during early voting) ... It’s physically impossible, ”Allen said.
Voters who want to beat the rush of primary day and still use a paper ballot can vote by mail as long as they register for the process in advance. For Chicago residents, the deadline to register for vote by mail is March 12. Check your local election authority for more information.
Are the voting machines secure?
McHenry County Clerk Joseph Tirio said a number of safeguards are in place to ensure ballot marking devices produce accurate results. In addition to running numerous random tests on the machines, the scanning devices have uniquely coded seals that can’t be easily infiltrated. The machines in McHenry use bar codes, not QR codes. When asked about whether bar codes could be altered prior to being scanned, Tirio said there’s no evidence of that happening.
In many ways, he added, the machines are preferable because they eliminate the human error that can result from counting ballots manually.
“The machines and the bar codes are far more accurate,” he said. “I understand the distrust ... but I don’t believe it’s well founded given the equipment and process that we have today.”
Who makes the election equipment?
The touch screens in Cook County and Chicago were obtained from Dominion Voting Systems, a private vendor, at a significant expense.
The Cook County Board approved a 10-year, $31 million contract for the new machines with Dominion in 2018, according to James Scalzitti, a spokesman for the Cook County clerk’s office. For Chicago, the city paid $22 million for a 10-year agreement with Dominion that includes ballot scanners, touch screens, booths, related equipment and software upgrades, according to Allen.
Elections officials in Lake and McHenry counties use a different vendor, Election Systems & Software, and DuPage uses a different type of ballot marking device.
Lake has been using its equipment since 2016, said Todd Govain, a chief deputy at the clerk’s office.
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