10/21/2008 12:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Chicago Area Election Agencies Preparing For Massive Voter Turnout

Even though Othanniel Velgara isn't a student anymore, he had to get up early last Saturday morning to be at UIC's Student Center for class anyway. Velgara took time out of his morning to train as a Polling Place Administrator (PPA) for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners. The board has turned to paying volunteers to act as technical experts at its citywide polling locations as it prepares for the November 4 General Election. The commission's move, along with a different program administered by a sister agency within the Cook County Clerk's Office, came after well-publicized technical problems marked the city's adoption of updated voting infrastructure in the years since 2000.

Velgara said he feels a "duty to participate beyond the level of just voting as a citizen," and so he volunteered to be trained as a PPA. "Its funny, what's [concerning] the entire country is the economy," he said. "The fact they're giving a stipend for this is a pretty good reason to get involved, but I'd hate that to be the sole reason to get involved. For me it's a personal thing. I'm not endorsing a particular candidate, but I'm here to be objective and make sure everyone has a chance to vote. I wanted to make sure I can promote [voting] with a little more credibility and authority."

While PPA Training Consultant Sandy Story prepped Saturday's class of volunteers on the board's ballot scanners, the volunteers followed along in their official Chicago Board of Election Commissioners Judge of Election Handbooks. Story demonstrated how to operate the scanners, built by Sequoia Systems, pressing buttons, scanning test ballots and answering questions about what can go wrong.

Story has worked on elections for more than 30 years. "It helps to have a few gray hairs to reassure PPAs, judges, and voters that you know what you're doing," she confidently joked. Her teaching partner, Training Consultant Colin Loftin, walked the PPA class through the commission's touch screen voting systems and wireless transmission equipment, which connects polling places to Chicago's election headquarters. The technology is far from foolproof, and so the board's investment in training for PPAs is critical in guaranteeing a successful free and fair election.

The PPA program originally was implemented in 2006 by the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners in partnership with People For the American Way (PFAW). Since that time, the Board has run the program on its own, using experienced specialists like Story and Loftin to provide the best quality possible in training PPAs. Cook County has followed suit this year, after two particularly disastrous election cycles. Vote counting and verification processes plagued the 2004 election. (Cook County, which follows a separate training program for its election workers, did not respond to repeated requests for access to its training classes for this report.)

A review of the 2006 Election problems by a blue ribbon panel of experts, the results of which were made public in a January 2007 report (pdf), revealed breakdowns in transmission systems and election servers supplied to Cook County by Sequoia. The widely circulated report identified key problems with the county's systems and processes, which, although similar to Chicago's systems, are administered separately. The slow 2006 vote tally produced only 57% of the county's votes as properly counted before 2AM the night of the election. The full count was announced as certified almost a full business day later, prompting candidates to angrily call for the resignation of Cook County Clerk David Orr, who blamed Seqoia for the problems in media interviews.

James Allen, Spokesman for Chicago's Board of Elections, said in a phone interview last week that the report caused both agencies concern, because both used Sequoia's systems at polling places. Allen noted that key factors are demonstrating, training, and retraining PPAs and Election Judges in all aspects of troubleshooting voting problems at the polls.

In the City's program, PPA's are observed by trainers and assessed based on how well they work within groups, their mastery of the various voting systems, and their knowledge of how to accommodate special needs voters at polling places. Chicago's systems all have printed paper trails. For the scanners, the trail is in the form of the paper ballot, and on the touch screen systems there is a locked printer canister that contains the paper record. Provisional balloting, audio-only voting for the visually impaired, and cancelling ballots for "fled voters" are all covered in the training. Illinois electoral law requires training in all of these areas for Election Judges and techincal personnel. Chicago's training program includes both online and in-person training, so PPAs and Election Judges can go back and revisit their training leading up to Election Day.

As for Cook County, the effectiveness of the upgrades since the 2006 meltdown will soon be put to the test. With just hours left for Illinois voters to register under the "regular registration" guidelines last week, Orr's office announced that since October 1, 2008, it had received 30,000 voter registrations; 13,000 of which came from "first-time voters." Early voting has now begun here and reports suggest that more early votes are being cast than ever before.

Even casual observers of Chicago's election headquarters last week could sense the tremendous influx of last-minute registrations. Exiting the elevator at the sicth floor offices, the din of officials interviewing registrants and answering questions was loud, as dozens of people lined the outer hallway and tables in the office, using corridor walls as tables, completing voter registration forms by hand. At the office entrance, a designated election staffer answered questions, distributed blank forms to the continuous line of people, and guided them to a long line of election officials ready to verify information contained in Cook County's revamped state-of-the-art voter database.

Under scrutiny from a budget-strapped Cook County Board of Commissioners, and Orr himself, the Election Office upgraded its technology and processes in response to the 2007 report. It also instituted the "Building Team Democracy" project; which recruits, trains, and posts college students in polling places, each fully responsible for the setup and maintenance of voting equipment through Election Day. These students are "election judges who undergo an intensive training course to learn how to maintain election equipment," according to a statement announcing the project.

The comprehensive retooling effort earned Orr the highest award conferred by the Election Center National Association of Election Officials in Dallas in August. The Election Center's Democracy Award recognized Orr's partnership with Loyola University "as the most unique and innovative program implemented by an elected official in 2007." The Election Center failed to mention Chicago or PFAW for their lead in implementing the first PPA project.

The Cook County -Loyola University partnership will result in 300 additional volunteers, funded by a $30,000 grant that covers a recruitment advertising campaign and paid transportation for students. Orr has pushed the envelope further, though, by revamping the Clerk's Office election website at, aggressively recruiting Deputy Registrars at High Schools and Colleges, and multi-lingual election officials within Chicago's diverse neighborhood constituencies. The revamped election website even includes multilingual streaming videos demonstrating how to vote, both on paper ballots with Sequoia's electronic scanners, and the county's Sequoia-built electronic touch screen machines with attached paper trail printers.

Neither Allen, nor sources from Orr's office, specifically commented on whether the massive voter registrations could cause more problems during this year's election. Allen did say, however, that the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners are confident that both organizations are much better prepared than in prior years. "Speaking for the Chicago Election Board, our infrastructure, staff, and volunteers are all ready to handle whatever comes our way," he said.