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Thursday, November 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 16.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Madison polling place machine was changing voter's choices
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Ted Shultz with one of the machines: 'I want everyone's vote
to count.'
Ted Shultz with one of the machines: 'I want everyone's vote to count.'
Credit:Carolyn Fath

Ted Shultz of Madison was just checking. Though he's not himself visually impaired, he always uses the machine provided for those who are to make sure it's working properly.

"I want everyone's vote to count," says Shultz, a grad student in mechanical engineering at the UW-Madison.

Since 2006, federal law has required that every polling place have voting equipment accessible to people with disabilities. Madison and other local governments use the ES&S AutoMARK. It's equipped with headphones so voters can hear the choices, and it lets those with limited vision view a magnified ballot, which it then marks. The ballot is printed out and can be reviewed, like any other, before it's turned in.

Using the ES&S AutoMARK last week at his polling place at Spring Harbor Elementary on Madison's west side, Shultz noticed the alignment was off. So when he tried to make a given choice, the machine would register a vote for the opposing candidate.

Shultz found this so jarring he filmed it with his cell phone camera. One clip shows his finger touching the oval that says "Kathleen Falk"; that causes the oval for "Nancy Mistele" to fill in. Another clip shows how his effort to select Shirley Abrahamson became a vote for Randy Koschnick.

"It was that way for every single one," says Shultz, whose field of study includes man/machine interfaces. "To select the candidates you wanted, you had to push right below them."

Shultz worries that people with visual impairments might not see these different choices being made. He adds that "some simple changes" in the software program, like putting spaces between the choices, could fix this problem.

Adam Gallagher, Madison's deputy city clerk, says the AutoMARK machines are calibrated before they're delivered to the city's 80 polling places. Sometimes the alignment can be off, but this is easily corrected, and the poll workers "know how to do that." The workers are urged to mark their own ballots with these machines - "anybody can use them" - to test them out.

But Shultz believes he was the first person to use the machine at his polling place that day. The AutoMARK jammed trying to print his ballot, something he's had happen before. So he ended up voting the ordinary way, making his own marks on a ballot.

Shultz reported the problem to the City Clerk's Office. Gallagher was not aware of it. He says it was a smooth election.

A number of polling places ran out of ballots and had to use photocopied extras, which must be tallied by hand, to the chagrin of some voters. And a counting machine in Madison's 2nd Aldermanic District, where longtime incumbent Brenda Konkel was defeated, became unplugged, so its memory pack had to be switched to a different machine to read the results.

Bob Ohlsen, the clerk for Dane County, was aware of the alignment problem Shultz encountered, but this is the first time he's ever heard of its occurring.

"Sometimes when you move these machines around, the alignment gets off," says Ohlsen. But he says the machines, which cost $4,800 each, are easy enough to recalibrate.

Shultz knows the machines are used by only a small number of voters, but he's still concerned: "[T]his voting equipment is notoriously poorly designed, and fails to meet user expectations."


Madison smoke ban blazed a trail

Next week marks five years since the Madison Common Council passed a citywide smoking ban. Though similar bans were already enacted in New York City and Ireland, the move was seen as so bold and controversial that Madison's remaining cancer-friendly businesses, mainly bars and bowling alleys, were given 14 months to brace for the change. Then they cried bloody murder and tried to recall Mayor Dave.

"We faced a lot of pressure," recalls Tommye Schneider, director of environmental health for Public Health Madison and Dane County, a title so long you practically need a cigarette break after typing it. "The Tavern League was all over us."

But while she doesn't doubt some bar owners lost money, Schneider says only a handful went out of business, and "in every case somebody else bought the place and put a new business in." She notes that the Madison area still has plenty of bars, and "these places are pretty darn full."

Overall, Schneider calls the ban "extremely popular," especially among the more than 80% of the populace that doesn't smoke. And a UW study found that Madison bar owners and patrons have improved respiratory health.

Ryan Sheahan of Tobacco Free Dane County, part of the health department, has tracked the economic impacts. He says the number of liquor licenses in Madison (for all businesses that serve alcohol, not just bars) rose 7% between July 2005, when the ban took effect, and March 2009, when there were 357.

"The sky's not falling," he says. "We've come a long way."

In fact, Madison's move now seems prescient. Five of Dane County's seven cities have voted to go smoke-free, with Verona joining the pack on Aug. 15. That's also when the lights will go out (get it?) at bars in the county's unincorporated areas. And Gov. Jim Doyle's budget includes language to impose a statewide ban.

Now communities that still allow smoking face growing pressure to get off their butts. As Sheahan puts it, "The argument five years ago was, 'If we're smoke-free, we're an island.' Now it's, 'We're the island if we're not smoke-free."


More good news

The number of Dane County vendors caught selling cigarettes to minors declined significantly in 2008. Young people working for the health department's compliance check program were able to buy smokes just 7.4% of the time in 788 attempts. That's down from 19.5% in 2006 and 11.7% in 2007.

A slightly higher percentage of illegal sales took place in Madison, versus the rest of Dane County. The checks included convenience and gas stores, liquor stores, grocery stores, drugstores, restaurants and bowling alleys.

Schneider of the health place thingy says compliance worsened several years ago when the Legislature restricted the allowable number of checks, but has since rebounded. "We know from experience that if we don't do this program, the sale rates go back up."


Double-take

It's funny how little has changed since last fall, when Isthmus wrote about how Sharon Koski of Dane County's Family Court Counseling Service for years misstated her professional credentials by falsely claiming to be licensed ("Watchdog," 11/26/08). Last Sunday, the Wisconsin State Journal reiterated the basic facts: The county is standing by Koski, and the state is investigating, though it can't really do anything except tell her to stop claiming she's licensed, as she's already done.

With overseers like these, it's a wonder more professionals don't make similar false claims.

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