During the 2008 presidential election, Belgrade Town Clerk Cheryl Cook and her election crew counted ballots by hand until 5:30 a.m.

So it’s no surprise she’s excited about the new electronic ballot counting machine the town will have this year.

“It’s quite a move forward, I think, for the town,” she said.

With 2,495 registered voters in Belgrade, Cook said they usually had eight to 10 pairs of people counting ballots. She expects to only need half that this year.

Cook and other clerks statewide are saved from laborious hand-counting into the wee hours thanks to funding from 2002′s Help America Vote Act. Nearly all Maine municipalities with at least 1,300 registered voters will use electronic balloting-counting machines Nov. 6.

Megan Sanborn, spokeswoman for the Department of the Secretary of State, said a few towns with more than 1,300 voters opted not to have one of the machines.

Maine is leasing the machines for five years from Election Systems & Software in Nebraska with no additional cost to the municipalities, she said. Sanborn said there isn’t a plan yet for what the state will do when the lease expires in five years.

Of the 65 municipalities receiving the machines, 62 were still hand counting election ballots — a process that left many election officials counting well past midnight, Sanborn said.

“People were getting tired, and it just wasn’t as productive as it could be,” she said.

The hand-counting involves teams of two election clerks of different party affiliations counting the ballots to double-check the results. Some municipalities have as many as 20 pairs counting on election night, Sanborn said.

The additional machines bring the total of Maine municipalities using electronic counting machines to around 184, while around 330 municipalities still count ballots manually, according to Sanborn. The state plans to upgrade the roughly 120 municipalities already using machines by March with the same model towns are getting for this election.

The Election Systems & Software model being leased, DS200, has an accuracy rate of 99.99 percent, according to Sanborn. The machine’s scanner records an image of both sides of the ballot and saves it on a flash drive, which is returned to the state after the election.

Faster counting

Chelsea Town Clerk Lisa Gilliam said she used the ballot-counting machines when she was Winthrop town clerk.

After hand counting for a local election in March and the primary in June, Gilliam said she’s pleased Chelsea has a machine now, especially with a high turnout expected for the presidential election. She expects to leave by 9:30 p.m. election night, even with a separate municipal ballot that has to be hand counted.

While the machines will make a significant difference to election clerks, the only difference voters will see is the box they’re inserting the ballot into.

Voters will mark their ballots the same way they did in the past and then insert them into the machine, which will alert voters if they filled in too many circles for a race or not enough. After the machine gives them the OK “we put a sticker on you that says you voted and off you go,” Gilliam said.

Ballots with write-in votes will be sorted separately and election clerks will manually record them after polls close, Gilliam said.

The machines will print out a receipt with a tally of total ballots and the results for each race and clerks will then compare the physical number of ballots taken to the machine’s total to ensure it registered all ballots, Gilliam said.

Before the election, Gilliam said she and other election officials will test the machine by inserting ballots with any possible result, like overvotes, undervotes and different markings. She said the new machines will record a vote even if a voter just makes an X or check mark in the box.

“I think the residents will be very pleased with it,” Gilliam said. “Surprised and pleased.”

A decade in the making

Waterville City Clerk Patti Dubois said the city, with just more than 10,000 registered voters, is one of the few municipalities getting the new counters that already have older electronic voting machines.

But the old machines didn’t alert the voter to possible errors like accidental overvoting and undervoting. The old machines also would set all ballots with write-ins aside. The new machines only put ballots aside if the race has a declared write-in candidate.

This means the election officials will spend less time looking at incomplete or improperly marked ballots and ballots with write-ins, which usually amounted to between 50 and 100, Dubois said.

The Help America Vote Act, passed in 2002, aimed at improving elections after the razor-thin 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Besides providing funding to replace voting equipment and improve election administration, the act established provisional voting, voter registration databases, voter identification procedures and administrative complaint procedures.

Maine was granted $20 million from the voting act, but the federal government ended up only funding $17 million, according to Sanborn. The state used the funding to meet new federal requirements established by the act, such as a central voter registration system and a vote-by-phone system.

Sanborn said the secretary of state’s election division had been looking into adding ballot-counting machines for the last few years but decided to do it for this election because a large turnout is expected for the presidential vote.

Leasing the machines for towns that were counting by hand, as well as upgrading the rest using different machines, will cost around $3 to $4 million during the next five years, according to Sanborn. She said the state doesn’t expect to have much of the federal money left once the project is completed.

Paul Koenig — 621-5663
pkoenig@mainetoday.com