By Ted Kleine

Cook County’s new “second chance” voting system is counting ballots so well that some nervous Republicans want it scrapped. In February the machines–which allow people to correct their punch cards if they overvote or undervote–helped cut the number of spoiled ballots by nearly 90 percent in some urban precincts. The last time there was a Democratic primary for Cicero town president, in 1997, 20 percent of the ballots were thrown out. This year: 2.2 percent. Local election officials were thrilled, but state senator Kirk Dillard wasn’t. The Hinsdale Republican has introduced a bill that would forbid voting equipment from detecting undervotes.

A staffer in Dillard’s office says the senator is worried about protecting the privacy of voters. If people choose not to vote in a particular race, that’s their business–machines shouldn’t be announcing it to the world. Looming precinct captains could intimidate voters into returning to the booth and completing their ballot, Dillard’s staffer says. “He truly believes this is a voter’s rights issue.”

The bill passed out of the senate’s local government committee by a vote of eight to one. If it becomes law, Cook County’s $25 million voter-protection system would be neutered. Last fall, after the presidential election, officials in the county clerk’s office looked at a sampling of ballots that registered no vote for president, and 88 percent were undervotes. Of those undervotes, the great majority showed a “dimpled chad,” indicating someone had tried to vote but failed to punch a clean hole. Much rarer were blank ballots, indicating that voters had not chosen a candidate.

This isn’t the first time Republicans have tried to stop Cook County from using ballot-checking technology. Last year, senate president James “Pate” Philip bottled up a bill allowing the county clerk’s office to use the new equipment. Finally, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Democratic Party of Illinois sued and won a court order putting the technology into action for the February 27 primary and the April 3 general election.

“The most spoiled ballots occurred in heavily Democratic areas,” says Steve Brown, press secretary to house speaker Michael Madigan. “If you were to tinker with the court order, clearly that’s affecting Democratic areas the most. Maybe that’s what they’re afraid of.”

Madigan has his own voting reform proposal. His bill would provide between $55 million and $60 million so every county in the state can buy equipment with the same ballot-checking capability Cook County now enjoys. It has already passed the house, 113-0.

“The question is, are there steps that can be taken to make sure every vote is counted?” Brown says. “If the technology can protect undervotes, why not inform the voters?” Brown brushes off Dillard’s fears of voter intimidation. “That’s already illegal,” he says. “That precinct captain would be on his way to jail.”

With the Democratic house and the Republican senate at odds over voter protection, it will probably be impossible to pass any voting reform legislation this year. A source in the county clerk’s office says once Madigan’s bill reaches the senate it will probably be stripped of the provision that protects undervotes.

That wouldn’t be surprising. State senator Barack Obama tried to slip through a bill that simply gives counties the option of kicking back undervotes. It died in the elections subcommittee.

Obama believes the state should add a “None of the Above” option for all races. Voters could punch that and the machines would accept their ballots. Accidental undervotes would still come back to the voter. This would satisfy the Republicans’ stated objection but not what Obama says is their actual objection.

“The principal reason is partisanship,” Obama says. “Privately I don’t think any of the Republican legislators would deny that. Why would they want to encourage an additional 10 percent in Cook County? That’s a direct blow against them in statewide races.”

Another reason Republicans have no interest in accepting Cook County’s vot-ing equipment is that their home counties are adopting a different system, Opti-Scan, in which the ballot is a sheet of ovals filled in by pencil, similar to the SAT. You can’t make a dimpled chad on an Opti-Scan ballot–the vast majority of undervotes are intentional. Opti-Scan does kick back ballots that are completely blank, which happens when voters misread the instructions and circle all the candidates’ names rather than fill in the proper ovals. But Opti-Scan–which has been adopted in Lake, McHenry, and Du Page counties–is impractical for Cook County, says county clerk David Orr. There are too many races to fit on a single sheet of paper.

Later this month the ACLU and the Democratic Party will go back to court to ask for a permanent order allowing Cook County’s voting equipment to kick back overvotes and undervotes. If it’s granted, Cook will be on equal footing with the suburban counties. But if Dillard’s bill passes, some city wards will undoubtedly see the return of astronomical error rates. According to Ed Yohnka, the Illinois ACLU’s director of communications, Dillard’s bill would most likely “circumvent the order where undervotes are concerned.”

Reform is still a dirty word in Springfield. Apparently that goes for voting reform too.