Traverse City News and Events

New Voting Technology Arrives in Grand Traverse, Leelanau Counties

By Beth Milligan | April 13, 2018

Voters in Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties will get their first look at new voting equipment this August – upgrades meant to provide increased security, faster tabulating and communication of results, and interactive technology for voters with disabilities and those preferring touchscreens to use in completing ballots.

The change marks the first upgrade to Grand Traverse County election equipment in over two decades. The replacement is part of a statewide initiative to replace voting equipment in all 83 Michigan counties, paid for with $30 million in federal Help America Vote Act funding and another $10 million in state funding. All counties are required to have new ballot tabulators, election management and reporting software, and accessible devices for voters with disabilities in place by the August 7 primary election.

Grand Traverse County Clerk Bonnie Scheele says while most voters won’t notice significant differences at the polls – with the majority still using a marker to fill out a paper ballot – the new ballot tabulator into which they feed their completed ballots will immediately alert a voter if a mistake has been made. If a voter has crossed party lines in a primary, for example, or accidentally selected too many candidates, the machine will “spit out the ballot” so the voter can accurately complete a new ballot, Scheele says.

The digital optical scan technology on the tabulators can also process ballots more efficiently – avoiding paper jams that caused confusion in the past over whether or not a ballot had been counted – and electronically stores ballot images for post-election audits. “The counts will be more precise, and we can modem the results to our office more quickly and get the results on our website and to the public faster,” Scheele says.

The most noticeable equipment upgrades will occur for voters with disabilities – and any other voters preferring to use a touchscreen rather than filling out a ballot by hand. Voter assist terminals (VATs) are touchscreen devices that will be available at each precinct for any voter to use. The equipment allows you to fill out your ballot choices on a screen, then prints out a completed paper ballot for you to feed into the tabulator. The VATs feature Braille and can accommodate headphones and sip-puff devices for those with disabilities; the text on the screen can also be enlarged for voters who have difficulty seeing small print.

Scheele, Leelanau County Clerk Michelle Crocker, and Traverse City Clerk Benjamin Marentette all cite the VATs as the most impactful upgrade among the equipment changes. “I think people who use the VAT are really going to like it,” says Crocker. “It’s really user-friendly.” Scheele says individuals with disabilities from the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District helped test out the equipment and “loved it. But we’ve also had people without handicaps use it. Younger people like it because they like technology. It can accommodate anybody, so it gives a lot more independence when voting.”

Marentette notes that though not yet authorized for use in Michigan, the machines could also someday allow voters to fill out their ballots on their smart phones. Voters would complete their ballot on their phone, come to their precinct on election day, and scan a QR code from their phone on the VAT, which would then print out their completed ballot. “It’s still auditable, there’s still a paper trail, but it allows you to do it ahead of time and encourages a whole other voting segment that might feel more comfortable (using their phones),” says Marentette. “I’m hoping Michigan will authorize it and am encouraging the Secretary of State to do so.”

Marentette was one of 12 members of a statewide advisory panel formed in 2012 to research and provide feedback on the technical components that should be included in Michigan’s new voting equipment. Vendors interested in providing the equipment had to go through a state bidding process and have their equipment tested in federal and state laboratories. Three vendors ended up making the cut; each county was allowed to select the vendor from which they would purchase equipment. Grand Traverse County chose Elections Systems and Software – which will be used at all precincts (including the Traverse City precinct that’s part of Leelanau County, in order to provide voting consistency across the city) – and is purchasing 46 tabulators and 31 VATs at a cost of nearly $490,000 for equipment and software. Leelanau County is working with Dominion Voting Systems, purchasing 18 tabulators and 14 VATs at a cost of over $133,000. 

Marentette notes the advisory panel was focused not only on speed and interactivity upgrades, but security improvements as well. In an era of heightened concern over voter fraud and election equipment hacking, Marentette points out Michigan remains a state that still requires a paper trail for ballots. Voters who use a VAT to complete their ballot – or in the future, potentially use their smart phones – aren’t electronically submitting their ballots through those machines. Rather, they’re merely digitally completing a ballot that is then printed and becomes a paper ballot the voter can look over before submitting into the tabulator. “I think it’s really important for voter confidence that there’s a paper trail,” Marentette says.

Reducing paper jams, electronically storing ballot images, and using digital scanners that can immediately identify mistakes as well as complete tasks like reading thousands of write-in votes – normally done manually by workers – can all streamline voting and tabulating activities while reducing errors, according to all three clerks. “The new equipment offers voters all the speed and convenience of the latest ballot-scanning and election-night reporting technology while at the same time featuring a good old-fashioned paper ballot that we can always go back and look at if we need to,” Secretary of State Ruth Johnson said in a statement.

Also related to election security: Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) announced this week the school district will no longer hold school on November election days for at least the next three years. Four TCAPS schools are used as polling locations, including Traverse Heights Elementary School, TCAPS Montessori at Glenn Loomis, Long Lake Elementary School, and Westwoods Elementary School. TCAPS Spokesperson Christine Guitar says the district made the decision to cancel school and instead schedule teacher work days on election days for safety reasons. “We did everything we could to separate the voting population from the normal sea of our educational day, but it’s hard,” she says. “We’re always reviewing our safety measures at our schools and saw an opportunity to improve in this area.”

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