GREENFIELD — Problems and delays with tabulating votes could be ironed out with a new ballot scanner, Hancock County election officials say.
The Hancock County Council Wednesday approved the purchase of a new high-speed scanner that will tabulate all of the county’s absentee ballots.
With the purchase comes a switch in how absentee ballots are tallied.
Hancock County will be deemed a “central count county,” where all of the county’s absentee ballots will be counted with the high-speed scanner at the courthouse, starting with the next election in 2014.
The high volume of absentee ballots due to a wave of early voters led to complications on Election Day last month. The count was not completed on election night, and the election board met two days later to complete the process.
The delay left Eastern Hancock and Mt. Vernon school board candidates in limbo. A precinct in eastern Hancock County suffered a technical glitch. Two precincts in the Mt. Vernon district had problems with counting the high volume of early ballots.
The new machine, Clerk Marcia Moore said, should help alleviate problems with folded ballots that were unreadable with the county’s current scanners. It will also streamline the tabulating process, because all of the absentee ballots will be counted at the courthouse throughout Election Day.
Election workers had to feed absentee ballots through scanners at the same time they were dealing with a fairly heavy turnout. The new machine will give workers more time to help voters.
The machine was on a list of items to purchase in 2013.
Moore said in an era when more people are voting early, the change to centralized counting makes sense.
“We felt like we listened to what our precinct workers were saying to us, what we could see from experience, what we were witnessing,” she said. “And we felt like this was the solution to the problem that had been caused by the large volume of absentee ballots.”
Hancock County had a 64 percent voter turnout, with 33,071 voters. Roughly a quarter, or 7,447, voted early.
Councilman Bill Bolander said poll workers were overwhelmed, working the polls and running absentee ballots through the scanners. He said the new machine should make the process go more smoothly.
In addition to a large number of absentee ballots this year, there were also write-in candidates. Several precincts were delayed in bringing their results to the courthouse annex because it took time to wrap everything up, Moore said.
The new machine costs $36,450, $20,000 of which will be funded with federal Help America Vote Act funds the county has on hand. The rest will be paid with food-and-beverage tax money, a fund the county has set aside for miscellaneous items from taxes on restaurant dining.
Moore urged the council to approve the vote Wednesday, because if the county purchases it by the end of the year, there would be a $5,000 savings. The council gave unanimous approval.
Election board member Tom Cone said the change will also help with ballot integrity.
“I think it gives voters some assurance when they mail (the ballot) back in… it’s being handled properly; it’s not going through so many hands,” he said. “Not that there’s been anything wrong (happen with absentee ballots)… but this is a further safeguard.”
Hancock County officials are still seriously considering a switch to vote centers with the 2014 election. Vote centers are locations throughout the county where people may cast a ballot regardless of where they live; the centers would eliminate traditional precinct-based polling locations based on neighborhoods and would reduce the number of poll workers to save money.
Moore said the new vote-counting machine will help tally absentee ballots regardless of whether the county switches to vote centers.
Public hearings on the vote center concept will be held in 2013.