EVANSVILLE — Exasperated by poll workers whose mistakes invalidated 159 votes and by the hours-long wait for results on election night, Vanderburgh County officials turned a routine certification into a quest for answers.

The county election board, encouraged by local Republican and Democratic Party chiefs, decided on Friday that vote counters will change the order of sealed paper ballot groupings they count to keep fresh results coming. On election night Nov. 8, a yawning gap of nearly four hours passed between release of the first batch of early voting results and final numbers.

About the 159 early voters whose ballots didn't count, nothing could be done Friday.

More:High-ranking local Republicans are lobbying people to run for mayor against Musgrave

Using Vanderburgh County's state-mandated "voter-verified paper audit trail," or "VVPAT," technology, during early in-person voting a voter seals a paper ballot produced by a marking device in an envelope. He then drops it into a box. The envelopes are opened by bipartisan teams on election day and the ballots are scanned then.

But Indiana election law requires the ballots be initialed by two poll clerks, Republican and Democratic, as a final step. In 159 cases across all early voting sites, that wasn't done.

The election board had to throw them out.

"It's sad that people lose their vote because somebody didn't do their job," County Clerk Carla Hayden told the board Friday.

Hayden, Vanderburgh County's chief elections officer and a Republican elected official herself, said poll workers are instructed repeatedly in training sessions to apply both sets of initials.

More:Here are the biggest winners and losers from Tuesday's election in Vanderburgh County

"Other than sitting behind (the clerks) with a stick and beating them on the head when they don’t do it, I don’t know what else to do," she said after the election board meeting.

Cheryl Schultz, local Democratic Party chair, expressed dismay at the news. Schultz called the number of invalidated votes "stunning."

Election night was a problem, board says

Unofficial results showed 46,336 Vanderburgh County residents voted on Nov. 8. By the time the election board had finished Friday sorting through all the ballots held over for review, the final count was 47,815. It's still fewer than the 59,000-plus who voted in 2018, the most recent midterm election and the best comparison.

No margins in any federal, state or local races changed significantly. But after an extended discussion that included frustrated pleas for action, board members made one change they hope will keep future election nights more interesting, if not quicker.

They decreed that vote counters in future elections will reverse the order in which votes are tabulated using VVPAT technology, to make the counting more efficient.

More:Final results on election night are not a given in Vanderburgh County

For voters who cast their ballots on election day, VVPAT means using ballot marking devices that generate grocery store receipt-sized slips they can double-check for accuracy and change if necessary before dropping into an optical scan device to be cast and tallied.

During early in-person voting, the voter seals the paper ballot in an envelope and drops it into a box. The envelopes are opened by bipartisan teams and the ballots are scanned then.

The underlying problem: VVPAT is an entirely different animal than the electronic voting machines the county used before 2020. Counting the paper ballots takes longer than relying on software in the electronic voting machines.

The even bigger problem: State law doesn't allow vote counters to start opening envelopes until election day. In Vanderburgh County, they start the work at 8 a.m., just after getting vote centers up and running.

"Because if somebody dies, you have to be able to pull that ballot," Hayden said Friday.

One voter did die before election day and after casting an absentee ballot, and that ballot was discarded Friday.

"I think that should have been his dying wish that that’s how he went, and that ballot should have counted," Hayden told the election board. "That’s a law I’d like to see changed."

A more interesting, if not shorter, election night

On election day, 12 two-person, bipartisan vote-counting teams began opening envelopes, removing paper ballots and scanning them by concentrating first on votes cast early and in-person at Old National Events Plaza and libraries. They then moved to absentee ballots cast by mail. Then they tackled ballots cast on election day at vote centers.

"On the early voting one, it’s a process," Marc Toone, Hayden's chief deputy, told the election board. "(Vote counters) have got to pull a staple out, then they’ve got to open the envelope up too. With the mail-in (ballots), you just open the envelope, boom, you’re done."

Ceasing work on one grouping of ballots to start work on another is impractical, Hayden said.

More:Vanderburgh County election night could be a late (and mystifying) night: Here's why

But Republican Chairman Mike Duckworth pointed out that absentee ballots cast by mail are typically the smallest pool of votes making the smallest impact on totals. Would processing those last make vote counting go quicker, Duckworth asked?

After all, the GOP chairman said, the first votes came in just after 7:40 p.m. election night and the next batch — the final batch — didn't come until about 11:30 p.m.

"Anything we can do to get clumps of votes to keep people watching," Duckworth said.

Election board chairman Joe Harrison, Jr. said — and the board agreed — that counting vote center ballots second and the smaller pool of mailed absentee ballots last is the best way to liven up election night. That way, Harrison said, 85-90% of votes could be counted by 9 p.m. or maybe earlier.

But that wouldn't mean final results would come any quicker, Harrison said. There just wouldn't be a four-hour gap between batches of results being reported.

"It still would have been 11:30 (p.m.), but yes, I think you would have had more numbers," Harrison said.

Elections chief has her own solution

Sitting around a table in the Vanderburgh County Election Office's Civic Center room, the board and party chairs fired out a succession of alternative ideas for making things go faster.

Vanderburgh County got its VVPAT technology with more than $2.2 million from the Indiana Secretary of State after the agency got a federal Help America Vote Act grant. What about that money, Duckworth asked? Could any of it be used to pay for more than 12 teams of vote counters in an election that saw nearly 50,000 votes cast? No, came the answer. The money has been spent.

Hayden warned that the $3,500 she requested and received for vote counters this year won't cut it in the presidential election year 2024. She said later Friday that she spent all but $135 of that money — not enough to pay for another two-person bipartisan team.

The answer, Hayden said, lies in letting elections officials "start (scanning ballots) right from the get-go instead of putting them in these envelopes and waiting around."

Duckworth warmed to the idea.

"There should be a way that you could have them counted electronically and being held and secured," he said.

"That’s what we’re talking about," said Hayden.

© 2022 courierpress.com, All rights reserved.