Ballots for visually impaired voters present problems

Monday, January 16, 2006

JOLIET, Ill. -- Will County Board Chairman Jim Moustis doesn't have a mouse or a moose in his name.

Just ask the employees in the county clerk's office who have given the chairman's name an awful lot of thought recently.

First the clerk's office tried "Moustis," but the computer software system designed to pronounce names for visually impaired voters said "Mouse-tis."

"Moohs-tis" didn't work. Neither did "Myus-tis."

After several more stabs at spelling the name phonetically, staffers in the county clerk's office cracked the code and came up with "Meus-tis."

Spelling Moustis' name phonetically hasn't been easy. But it's something County Clerk Nancy Schultz Voots has to do now that she's embroiled in a high-stakes version of the name game.

For years, the clerk's office has worked to make sure ballot names were spelled correctly. Now pronunciation counts, too.

Dozens of names will have to be spelled phonetically for new voting machines for visually impaired voters. The machines will read ballot choices for the first time ever in next year's elections.

Moustis isn't the only ballot troublemaker.

Sheriff Paul Kaupas will be "Koh-pas," and county board member John Gerl will be "Girl."

Voots recently purchased 390 new voting machines for disabled voters with a grant from the federal Help America Vote Act. Election officials throughout the country have to have similar systems.

For the software to get all the ballot names right, the clerk's office has to spell the names phonetically so the Job Access With Speech (JAWS) software will pronounce it correctly.

"We never had to worry about pronunciation, so this is new," said Terry Carr, chief deputy clerk.

This may be quite a task in March when all 452 precincts in the county have precinct committeemen slots open. Those races, added to all the county and state races, could mean that more than 1,000 names have to be pronounced correctly for visually impaired voters.

Voots will ask all candidates who drop off nominating petitions next week to make sure the system is pronouncing their names right. Candidates who mail in their petitions or send them with others will get a letter in the mail.

Voots said she doesn't want someone who loses an election to file an objection arguing that his or her name wasn't pronounced correctly on the ballot.

"If they lose, I'm not getting blamed for it," she said.

If candidates have any concerns about pronunciations, they can come to the clerk's office in the county building to hear for themselves how their names will be pronounced on Election Day, she said.

So far, Moustis was the toughest, Carr said. She tried 15 different combinations until "Meus-tis" finally worked, she said.

"It's trial and error," Carr said.

Democrats Dale R. Vollmer and Richard Girot, who plan to challenge Kaupas, also had pronunciation issues. Vollmer's middle initial will be "Ahr," and Girot will be "Juraut."

Several other county board members also posed pronunciation problems. Tom Weigel will be "Whygle," Chuck Maher will be "Mayer," Walter Adamic is "Addemik" and Ann Dralle is "Drayl."

Voots said she's working hard to make sure all ballot names are pronounced correctly. The phonetic spellings will not appear anywhere on the printed ballot.

Moustis may have been the toughest name, but there was one name that didn't cause a pronunciation problem at all.

"Voots was fine," Voots said with a smile.

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