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BLOOMINGTON - Central Illinois election officials met a Jan. 1 deadline to comply with the federal Help America Vote Act.

Lawmakers passed the requirements in 2002 to address problems with punch-card ballots. Optical scan voting units use a marker to color a circle next to the candidate of choice instead - something many voters experienced in 2004 - and the federal law also provides full access to balloting for people with disabilities.

Help for disabled

For many people with disabilities, the March primary may be the first time they cast a ballot.

"This will give freedom to a lot of disabled people that they've never had before," said Char Stanford, executive director of the Bloomington Election Commission.

Any voter may use the new equipment. "I don't want the machines to sit there waiting for someone to use them," said Stanford.

The equipment allows people with vision problems - ranging from blindness to minor sight loss - to mark a ballot. "The machines will even increase the size of the font (on ballots) for people who forgot their glasses," said Stanford.

Units with headphones and a keypad will accommodate voters who have problems using a pencil. More sophisticated equipment will be phased in to cover additional disabilities, said McLean County Clerk Peggy Ann Milton, whose election judges will be trained for the new equipment.

"I'm excited that for the first time people with disabilities will be able to cast a vote in private in McLean County," she said.

The additional election machines have created an issue for some communities with limited storage facilities. In Logan County, Clerk Sally Ann Litterly is searching for places to put the 80-pound suitcases that hold each of the county's 29 new units.

The nearly 40,000 Bloomington voters who cast ballots at the city's polling places used the optical scan election equipment beginning with the 2004 March primary. A federal grant paid $130,000 of the $175,000 price tag.

The machines received good reviews from voters and election officials, Stanford said. "Everything went beautifully. The voters and election judges loved it," she said.

Milton purchased optical scanners for the 57,000 voters in her jurisdiction, which includes all areas of McLean County except the city of Bloomington.

"We love the optical scan equipment. It was a very good fit for us and we couldn't be happier with it," she said.

DeWitt County Clerk Jayne Usher also reported a positive response; her equipment first was used in the 2004 general election. Election judges were trained on the system and took the units to several locations around the county to give voters an opportunity to practice before they stepped into the voting booth.

The optical scan system is favored by election officials because voters who make an error can correct it before leaving the polling place. Blank ballots or those with accidental over-votes are not permitted by most optical scan systems.–;

In Woodford County, newly appointed County Clerk Debbie Harms said voters and election judges have adjusted well to the new voting equipment. Voters began filling in ovals in 2004, she said, without problems or complaints.

The optical scanners were received in smaller, rural areas with the same enthusiasm as larger communities.

The 8,400 voters in Ford County have had three opportunities to try out optical scanning equipment, said Ford County Clerk Linda Kellerhals.

Many voters were pleased with the simplicity of the new system, she said. Like many other counties, Ford combined several precincts to reduce the number of machines the county had to purchase.

County clerks and other election officials agreed that advance training and a public information campaign was crucial to the success of the optical scan system. Litterly sent a practice ballot to registered voters so they could practice coloring in their choices.

One of the advantages of the equipment is the streamlined counting procedure, said Litterly. Votes are tabulated on a memory card inside the scanner unit. After the polls close at 7 p.m., the card is entered into a computer at the county clerk's office.

Punch card ballots were much slower to tally as election workers fed the cards into a counting machine at the end of the day.

"The evening is shorter for everyone," Litterly said.

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