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Small county reluctantly gives up its distinction


They don’t abandon traditions easily in Van Buren County, where miles of rolling hills remain undisturbed by development, life moves at a slower pace and remnants of the past are still very much in evidence in towns settled along the Des Moines River as it winds toward the Mississippi. There are no stop lights, no fast-food restaurants and more deer than people – population 7,809, according to the last census.

So it is with misgivings that Jon Finney, the county auditor and commissioner of elections, brings Van Buren County into the 21st century. The last of Iowa’s 99 counties to hand-count ballots, Van Buren has been forced by the federal Help America Vote Act to use optical-scan voting machines in this year’s general election. Finney couldn’t have predicted that after the debacle over the 2000 presidential election. He said then that the county would continue hand-counting its ballots as long as the system worked well.

“For one thing, it’s tradition,” he said. “Van Buren County is known as a historical county. … I’m not going to say we’re backward – we’re fully computerized and have GSI mapping. We have telephones and radios … but some things are unique in the county that we haven’t wanted to change. If you become like everyone else, you’re no longer unique.”

The deadline to comply with the federal law isn’t until Jan. 1, 2006, but the deal Secretary of State Chet Culver’s office struck with Election Systems & Software at is too good to turn down. The state will pay for the first year of the lease agreement with funds from the federal legislation, and that it makes it “almost impossible for us to continue” hand-counting ballots, Finney says.

Culver says replacing “outdated and obsolete voting systems will assure fair and accurate elections in the future.” Also affected are Crawford, Ida, Keokuk, Delaware, Sioux and Palo Alto counties, which haven’t been hand-counting ballots, but use older lever systems. No one’s suggesting that Van Buren or the other counties affected are rife with voter fraud. With checks and double checks, Finney put the accuracy rate of Van Buren County’s count of its 3,500 ballots in the 2000 presidential election at 100 percent.

Indeed, after the Associated Press picked up a story about Van Buren County’s hand-counted ballots, the auditor received calls from Canadian election officials, who were moving toward automated voting systems in some local elections but retain hand-counted paper ballots in prime minister elections because they believe that method has the most integrity.

The new system isn’t without merit, Finney says. It’ll give voters a second chance to cast their ballots if they undervote or overvote, and election officials won’t have to wait for precinct workers to bring bags of paper ballots to the courthouse in Keosauqua to be counted. Though rare, there have been occasions when the last ballot hasn’t been counted until 5:30 on the morning after Election Day.

And the tradition may not disappear completely. Ballots may still be hand-counted in city and school elections because they generate so few votes that officials would find it difficult to justify the expense of leasing the machines.

“It’s going to be a move for us that we are not entirely happy about, but it’s not going to kill us either,” Finney says.

They’ll be fine in Van Buren County, as long as no one tries to install a stop light or open a fast-food restaurant.

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