MADISON — The voting machines used by Racine County were ruled decertified by the Wisconsin Election Commission on Tuesday, with the order taking effect in November 2018.
The Optech Eagle voting machines are more than two decades old and have a significant flaw in regard to absentee voting that has caused concern in recent elections. The machines can only read carbon-based marks on a ballot, meaning absentee voters must use pencil or a special type of pen. The machines are used throughout the county.
Tuesday’s decision likely won’t affect voting in the City of Racine much. Assistant City Clerk Tara McMenamin said training on new voting machines will begin in late November in anticipation of the February 2017 municipal and school-board primary elections. However, all state elections from this week forward that use the Optech Eagles will require poll workers to remake all absentee ballots and conduct all recounts by hand.
The absentee ballot rule could prove particularly taxing for poll workers in the Oct. 17 special mayoral election. McMenamin said the city received 1,529 absentee ballots in the mayoral primary, a number that likely will increase in the general election.
“That potentially could be a challenge,” McMenamin said.
Elections Commission Commissioner Mark Thomsen argued for the new absentee ballot and recount rules, citing a fear that not all of the absentee ballots in the November 2016 general election were tabulated accurately by Optech Eagle machines.
“If someone asks for a recount, this organization is saying do it by hand because that’s the best way to accurately make sure every vote counts,” Thomsen said. “We know that the machine might not give us the right answer.”
Timing based on reason
The late 2018 timeline isn’t just to coincide with that year’s last general election, which includes the race for governor and U.S. Senate. According to Elections Supervisor Richard Rydecki, the main vendor for the Optech Eagle, Command Central, will stop “providing service and programming” on the machines at the end of next year.
As many as 57 municipalities in Wisconsin are still using the Optech Eagle, according to Rydecki, who added that Wisconsin is the last state in the country to still be using the old machines.
“We plan to continue to work with all of those municipalities to see where they’re at and make sure we’re not orphaning anyone in this process,” Rydecki said.