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Peoria County is on track to get a new paper-based voting system

Tim Shelley

Voters in Peoria County likely will see some changes when they go to the polls for this year's primary election.

The county board is expected to authorize spending $1.24 million to purchase 83 new paper-ballot voting machines and upgrade electronic poll books. Peoria County Election Commission executive director Tom Bride says the current electronic voting system has run its course.

“Our equipment that we have now, it's 15 years old and it's at the end of life,” said Bride. “We can't get new parts, and anytime repairs are (needed) it’s used parts. Some of the software isn't supported anymore, so it's time to replace the system we have. Fifteen years is a long time for any voting system.”

A vote on a budget amendment for the purchase is on the agenda for Thursday’s 6 p.m. county board meeting. Last week, the Finance, Audit, and Legislative Affairs and the Ways and Means committees recommended approval.

Bride said the new system actually requires less equipment, and using paper ballots is more in line with most voting jurisdictions across the country. He said one advantage to the new system is that voters going to the polls will be using the same type ballots as those who opt for early voting or vote-by-mail.

“The vast majority of voters will come in, they'll check in the same way they always have on our electronic poll books, and they'll be issued a paper ballot — they'll actually be printed and handed to them,” said Bride. “They'll fill out the paper ballot by hand, so there'll be a hand-marked paper ballot that will then go into a scanner.”

Bride said they still had confidence in the old system’s ability to handle upcoming elections, but noted the shift of this year's primaries from March to June 28 afforded some extra time to get the new system in place.

“We were starting to see some breakdowns, and we just thought it was a good time to move forward,” Bride said. “We've been having discussions for three or four years at the election commission, and I've had conversations with county board personnel and county board members for the last couple of years, that this was a good window and the optimal time to replace the equipment.”

The purchase price includes $918,000 for the voting system and $327,000 to upgrade the poll books.

“We're upgrading the poll books, for a couple reasons. One, to work with the new voting system, but also to allow the poll books to print that ballot on demand,” said Bride. “When you go into the polling place now, we give you an access code and you go and vote, and that's the poll books determine which ballot style you get based on the information that's in it. This will also allow the poll book to print the specific and proper ballot for the voter.

“We didn't want to take a step back by having pre-printed stacks of ballots. So we were able to upgrade the electronic poll books at the same time to integrate with the new voting system. It really is the same thing we have now with the poll books, we're just upgrading them to work with the new system.”

Bride said the election commission should start receiving the new machines in late February and poll workers will train on the new system in March and April in preparation for the June primary.

Last year, Gov. JB Pritzker signed a law that pushed the primary election back by 15 weeks from March 15, along with other changes aimed at expanding access to voting. Bride said voters likely won’t notice many differences.

“Going forward, you can now sign up for a permanent vote-by-mail,” he said. “So you would fill out one application, and each election you're sent a vote-by-mail ballot. That's different in the past where you had to do an application for each election; you can still do that, but you can also sign up to be set on a list so that you're automatically sent a ballot for each election.”

Bride said beyond that, many of the changes will have more impact on candidates than voters.

“Obviously, the calendar is different for this (primary). The petition collection period is 60 days as opposed to 90 days, but the number of signatures was reduced by two thirds,” he said. “So those kinds of things offset. But it doesn't have a lot of effect on the voter, other than it'll probably be a nicer day.”

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.