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E-poll books survive Commissioner vote 2-1; Kozuszek protests

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

The Porter County Commissioners cleared the way for electronic poll books to be used at all polling places in next Tuesday’s primary elections, approving the contract the Election Board signed in February with vendor Electronic Systems and Software, by a 2-1 vote Wednesday.

Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, and Commissioner Jeff Good, R-Center voted favorably. The sole Democrat on the Commissioner board, Laura Shurr Blaney, D-South, voted against.

Voters Registration Democratic Director Kathy Kozuszek also expressed her opposition to the purchase agreement for 69 new e-poll books, denouncing claims by Republican members of the Election Board that this will be a cost-saving deal for the County.

The Commissioner’s approval turned out to be critical as the County Council Tuesday voted 6-1 to deny a transfer of $40,000 sought to cover the lease agreement with ES&S, partly because the Commissioners hadn’t approved it.

Election Board President and Republican member David Bengs said he will try the Council another time for funding approval, but as long as his board has the okay from the Commissioners, the books will stay for now.

A Case for Poll Books

Bengs and County Clerk Karen Martin, also a Republican, made their case to the Commissioners on why they think the transition to e-poll books is the right move and would be a savings to County government, by eliminating unused ballots. State law requires that ballots be made available for each voter in a county, but many are thrown out because a substantial number of those eligible do not turn out to vote.

Martin said that $49,000 was “wasted” in excess ballots during the 2012 primary election.

By having the on-demand ballot printer with the poll books, the ballots don’t need to be printed ahead of time for about $1 a piece, Martin said.

The poll books and the printers operate on WiFi air cards on a closed system “that is just as safe as your personal phone,” said Martin, disputing comments made at Tuesday’s County Council meeting that the connection could be hacked.

The lease will also allow for tabulating absentee ballots by computer in one location and poll book scanners will keep an accurate count of who votes on Election Day, which makes it easier for poll workers to see that the totals add up, according to Bengs and Martin.

Martin said since 2010 the board has evaluated voting equipment to find ways to enhance the voting process, including looking at consolidated voting centers. “This is not something we got into lightly. We’ve done our research,” she said.

Evans did challenge the fact the board moved ahead with the contract without discussing it with the Commissioners. He said that it is the County’s executive body which executes contracts.

“We cannot have political party appointees obligate the County to any expense, at any time,” he said. By law, the County Democrat and Republican Party chairs are to appoint a representative to the Election Board and the County Clerk is to serve as its third member.

Martin told the Commissioners that “at no time was it (the board’s) intention to avert the process.” She said she believed that contracts were to go to the Commissioners, but had been told once during her former years as a County Council member that was not always the case.

The board’s contract to purchase 15 e-poll books last year was never an issue, she said.

Martin said that the board intended to have the contracts approved by the Commissioners ahead of the County Council meeting, but unluckily for them the Commissioners had rescheduled their meeting to the fourth Wednesday of the month instead of meeting on the regularly third Tuesday of the month, due to conflicts.

Evans tried to smooth over the issue, saying “we’re not going to go back to back” and “let the past be the past,” alluding to a few problems with prior contracts by some election officials, and said he wanted to focus on the contracts at hand -- one for the poll books and the other for the WiFi connection with Verizon.

Good said he was he would like the Election Board and the Commissioners to work together to decide what can be done for more efficiency in the voting process, such as looking at possible ways to consolidate polling locations, although he said he isn’t ready yet to advocate for voting centers.

“We should work toward these things and I think it’s something we need to do,” he said.

Evans asked if the decision for the e-poll book purchase in February was unanimous with the Election Board. The answer was “yes” as Jerome Davison who was sitting in as proxy for Democratic Board member J. J. Stankiewicz voted in favor it. Bengs said Davison works in Chicago where election officials have been using e-poll books for a while.

The Election Board persuaded Evans and Good to let it keep its contract. Blaney said her vote against had nothing to do with party affiliation, but because of her concern about the security with the WiFi connection.

“I don’t always feel secure about my phone,” she said, referencing Martin’s earlier comments.

A Case against Poll Books

During the discussion, Evans allowed Kozuszek the opportunity to speak and she argued vehemently that the move to e-poll books would cost the County more than $400,000 in equipment, license fees and replacement costs.

“It’s a money pit. It’s not a savings to the County,” Kozuszek said. “If it would save us $1, I’d be for it.”

Kozuszek, who said she was speaking as both a county taxpayer and a voter, said the Election Board had not included in their budget, approved by the County Council, any line item to pay for the poll books. They are trying to purchase them with money set aside for ballots and coding, she said.

“They say they have money for them. There is no money for them. They will have to go to the County Council for an additional,” Kozuszek said.

Kozuszek attacked Martin’s analysis of the potential savings with on-demand printers. First, it costs 23 cents to print a ballot, not 95 cents, and the number of ballots available never reached the amount Martin projected, Kozuszek said.

Kozuszek bragged she has 15 years’ experience running elections, and alleged that not once has Martin been involved. Kozuszek ran against Martin unsuccessfully last year in the race for County Clerk.

Kozuszek also disputes claims the new machines are compatible with the current election equipment. She said the poll books “do not interface with the M-100s.”

Kozuszek was also disturbed that the executive director of the County Republican Party, Kenard Taylor, signed the contract for last year’s purchase of 15 poll books, sitting in as proxy for Bengs.

Kozuszek supplied members of the Council with copies of the contracts and said she “had to play hell” to get the information.

Lastly, Kozuszek made an accusation that Evans conducted an unannounced meeting with the Election Board minutes before the start of the Commissioners meeting.

“That is a boldface lie!” Evans told Kozuszek, who stood firm in her claim. “You can check my whereabouts this afternoon with the County Attorney.”

County Attorney Betty Knight told the Chesterton Tribune afterwards that Martin had handed her a copy of the contract outside the Commissioners chambers prior to the meeting and attested that Evans was in his office.

Good said he arrived 15 minutes before the Commissioners meeting and saw no evidence that Evans met with Election Board members.

Later in the meeting, two representatives from the group Women Praying for Porter County approached the Commissioners, requesting permission to hold an event on May 7 in front of the Courthouse. “I wish you guys could have been first (on the agenda) today,” Good said.

 

 

Posted 54/30/2015