Calhoun County Probate Judge Alice Martin, the county’s chief election official, said the pencils have caused some problems here and elsewhere in the state. Voters who bear down too hard with the pencils in some cases are leaving an impression on the other side of their ballots, causing the machines that read them to reject the ballots.
“It does have to do with people bearing down too hard with the pencils,” Martin said.
Poll workers are being told to instruct voters to mark their ballots carefully so that they’re not rejected, the judge said.
Representatives of the company that provides election equipment and services to nearly every Alabama county said the change was made because it was becoming increasingly difficult to find enough pens. The company, Omaha, Neb.-based Election Systems & Software, pointed out that pencils are an acceptable ballot-marking device, and should present no problems for its ballot-reading machines.
The company helped diagnose the problem after poll workers reported some voters were having problems with their ballots, Martin said.
The judge said she knew of no instance in which a voter’s ballot was not counted. She said pens had been provided to some polling places where rejections have been an issue.
“We know that some of the voters have been unhappy about the use of pencils,” Martin said. “We’re not in control of that.”
Mark Kelley, Birmingham-based director of print services for ES&S, said the familiar black pens had started to become an issue in the 2008 presidential election, when record-high voter turnout made it difficult to supply enough pens. The company had similar problems in planning for Alabama‘s June 1 party primaries, Kelley said, because the manufacturer of the pens the company had used for years stopped making them. Efforts to find a new vendor who could supply enough pens to meet the state’s needs didn’t go well.
“We just couldn’t find anything,” Kelley said.
The pencils the company turned to instead are short, 3-inch No. 2 version without erasers, writing instruments familiar to anyone who’s kept score at a golf course. Kelley said similar pencils have long been provided to voters who request absentee ballots.
“Voters have used pencils for years,” Kelley said. “There’s less cost and better availability.”
John Groh, ES&S’ senior vice president for marketing and public relations, said the pencils provide no less security for the integrity of each voter’s choices. Asked whether the used of pencils opened the possibility of election fraud through erasure of some ballots, Groh said there was very, very little chance of such a thing happening.
Ballots are in a voter’s possession until they’re fed into machines at the polling place to be counted, so there’s no opportunity for anyone to change them, Groh said. The ballots are then kept sealed, he said, and are only re-counted in the case of an election challenge. In the meantime, the chain of custody of the ballots is spelled out in the law to make it extremely difficult for anyone to tamper with them.
“It would require many people to perpetrate that kind of a fraud,” Groh said.
Meanwhile, each ballot-counting machine also records a digital image of every ballot it scans, which can then be compared to the paper ballots in the event there is a wide swing in vote totals.
ES&S contracts with 66 of Alabama’s 67 counties to provide election supplies and support, with only Mobile County turning to a different vendor. Kelley said.
Calhoun County Administrator Ken Joiner said ES&S billed the county for $86,190 for the June 1 party primary elections. Half of the cost of running elections is reimbursed by the state government, with the rest of the cost coming from the county’s general fund budget.