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Oddly marked ovals bane of poll workers’ day

Oddly marked ovals bane of poll workers’ day


Maxine and Rosie didn't much like the way some voters marked their ballots in Tuesday's election. They're kind of sensitive that way.

Maxine and Rosie are ballot scanning machines in the Pennington County Auditor's Office, and like other new ballot-scanning machines statewide, they are sensitive, recognizing only ballots that are properly marked.

Ballots - particularly early ballots - that were improperly marked or that were folded had trouble passing muster with the state's new scanners and led to slowdowns in getting votes totaled in many areas of the state, according to elections officials.

Ballots that had ovals properly darkened with either pen or pencil sailed through the scanners in fine form. But the scanning machines rejected ballots that didn't have properly filled in ovals indicating the voter's choice.

Those ballots were set aside, and resolution teams composed of one Republican and one Democrat later determined the intent of the voter and recreated the ballot, properly filling in the ovals so the ballot could be read by the machine and counted.

All the ballots were counted, but that took a lot of time, delaying the count in Pennington County and some other counties throughout the state.

People who voted early and mailed their ballots in had to fold the 17- and 19-inch long ballots - depending on the county - to get them into the 14-inch envelopes. The fold slowed down the scanning process, according to Secretary of State Chris Nelson and county auditors. "They just won't feed as fast or smoothly," Nelson said.

Voters figured out a variety of ways to improperly mark their ballots. Instead of filling in the ovals, some people circled them, checked them or put x's in them, according to Pennington County Auditor Julie Pearson. Black or blue ink worked, but red ink didn't scan.

One voter marked a ballot with a hot-pink marker, Pearson said. Another voter spilled water on a ballot, which made it crinkly. The scanner kicked it out. Another ballot had blood on it.

Not good enough, said Maxine and Rosie.

Pennington County brought in extra resolution people and had four resolution teams to recreate 142 ballots. But with a 19-inch ballot including candidates, local ballot issues and 11 statewide issues, that took time, Pearson said.

"It does give us the assurance that the scanners are more particular," Pearson said. "We think that's an advantage."

But Pearson and Nelson said that before the next statewide election, the June 2008 primary, elections officials want to educate voters about properly darkening the ovals on the ballot.

That isn't a problem for people who vote early at the courthouse, where staffers provide pencils and pens. But it is a problem when people vote at home using hot-pink markers.

Pearson also said another scanner isn't needed. But she said counties want to be able to call upon extra resolution teams to deal with early ballots that the scanners reject.

"Early voting is staying around," she said.

In Pennington County, almost 16,000 people, about 40 percent of the total, voted early.

Another problem in Pennington County occurred with some computer software that is supposed to transfer updates from Rosie and Maxine into a computer program. It wasn't working, so elections staffers had to modify the programs and check everything manually, using calculators, Pearson said.

The county's technology director, Diana Nelson, stayed throughout the night to keep the computer system patched together, Pearson said.

Pearson said she hopes Nelson can reprogram the system before the June 2008 primary.

Of course, the distance to transport ballots to the county courthouse is a challenge every election for large counties such as Pennington, Fall River and Shannon.

Pennington County didn't finish counting votes until after midnight Tuesday, and it took until almost 1 a.m. Wednesday to get the last vote total report verified, Pearson said.

Turnout in Pennington County was 67.2 percent, a disappointment, Pearson said.

Elections officials in Custer and Butte counties reported problems with their scanning machines, slowing the count. In Custer, it took two hours to count two early precincts, despite a successful trial run earlier in the day. The scanner began working better later Tuesday night and the staff finished about 12:30 a.m., according to deputy auditor Cathy Carter. Turnout was 67.5 percent.

Butte County officials struggled with their scanner all night and didn't finish counting until about 2 a.m., according to auditor's assistant Mary Rosenau. Turnout was 68 percent.

Meade County reported no problems and finished counting at 11:30 p.m. Lawrence County had some scanner glitches but finished counting about 10 p.m.

Nelson hopes to find a solution to the folded and poorly marked absentee ballots for future elections. He wants to find a way to avoid folding the absentee ballots and better educate voters to fill in the ballot ovals properly. Nelson also said adding more people to the resolution boards could help. "The prime thing I want to look at is speeding up that counting process," he said.

Nelson said he was happy overall with this year's election procedure, although he was disappointed in the statewide 67 percent turnout.

He said one bright spot is the declining number of provisional ballots cast by people who were not listed on polls. They are allowed to vote but their ballots are not counted until ballot boards confirm that they are eligible to vote.

The number of provisional votes statewide dropped by about 200 this year from the 533 total in 2004, Nelson said.

The Pennington County election board examined 43 provisional votes Wednesday afternoon.

Some of those who vote don't just mark their ballots. They also comment, elections officials said. "We like to read the notes," Pearson said. "We had one that said there's nobody here worth voting for." This year, there weren't any really nasty notes scrawled on ballots, she said.

In any case, Maxine and Rosie don't mind. Those votes, too, get counted.

Contact Steve Miller at 394-8417 or

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