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Consultant to investigate Lake County malfunction
By Russell Lissau | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 2/7/2008 12:09 AM

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An independent consultant will investigate why Lake County election judges were unable to properly transmit voting results electronically after polls closed Tuesday, officials said.

The county clerk's office successfully relied on a backup plan to get votes from 161 polling places to the county government center in Waukegan, but results were tabulated and posted on the clerk's Web site hours later than usual.

That caused some late-night consternation for politicians awaiting results in their races -- and quite a bit of frustration and disappointment for Clerk Willard Helander.

On Wednesday, Helander praised the county's 2,300 election judges for properly following their training and ensuring votes were counted by 11 p.m. Election Day. But she also demanded answers to a problem that made her office the subject of media reports.

"You have to have explanations," Helander said. "You have to rule things out."

Neither Helander nor Lake County Administrator Barry Burton could pinpoint the cause of the malfunction that kept vote-tabulation machines at polling places across the county Tuesday night from connecting to the county's computers in Waukegan.

They usually do so through telephone lines at the polling places.

Workers at some of the county's transfer stations -- 13 centers that collect voting equipment, ballots and other materials from polling places -- couldn't connect to the county headquarters, either, Helander said.

The problem was discovered shortly after 6 p.m., nearly an hour before polls closed, Helander said.

When they're trained, election judges are instructed to drive the vote-tabulation machines from a polling place to the nearest transfer station if they can't connect to the county building, Helander said. Although some called to report the problem, that's what most of the judges did automatically Tuesday night, Helander said.

"That's why we (had final results) before midnight," Helander said. "They all did a good job."

At the transfer stations, the voting data was transferred from the tabulators to laptop computers. Those laptops -- one at each station -- were taken to the county building, where the votes were uploaded into the county computers, Helander said.

Once there, the results were quickly broadcast on the county's LCTV cable station and its Web site. Until it was publicized, the data in the tabulators and the laptop computers was secure and secret, Burton and Helander insisted.

Even though the results were broadcast later than initially planned, Helander was pleased the county's count was completed earlier than many others in the area, including Cook County, McHenry and Chicago.

Now, officials want to determine what happened. Although a firm hasn't been hired yet, Burton hopes an information-technology consultant will start investigating the problem this week.

"We have to make sure we get crystal clear answers," Helander said.