Archive for Thursday, December 1, 2005

County switching to voting machines

Change to occur at August primary

December 1, 2005

In next August's primary election, Leavenworth County voters will use touch-screens to cast ballots, instead of pencils and paper.

By the August election, all counties must comply with the federal Help America Vote Act, which was enacted in 2003.

As Leavenworth County Clerk Linda Scheer investigated adjustments the county must make to adhere to the act, she decided that moving to electronic voting was prudent.

To help offset the costs of complying with the act, the county will receive a $289,000 federal grant. That will cover nearly 70 percent of the cost of about 120 voting machines priced at about $425,000.

This morning, Scheer will seek permission from the Leavenworth County Commission to move ahead with the purchase of the machines, which will feature touch-screens.

Included among the 120 voting machines, Scheer said, will be one machine at every polling place that will allow people with handicaps to vote independently -- without the aid of poll workers or friends.And all of the machines will include a feature that will prevent voters from voting for more than one candidate in a race or making other mistakes that might cause their ballots to be rejected -- key provisions in the Help America Vote Act.

Scheer sees many benefits to moving to all-electronic voting.

"Results should be a lot faster," she said. "I hope at the precincts that more people will be able to vote faster. I know, at the beginning, it's not going to be the case. We have to deal with the elderly who are so used to paper ballots."

But Scheer said she believes that with education of the public and training of poll workers, the transition from paper ballots to electronic voting machines should be fairly painless.

"We hope that we will have several machines that we will be able to go throughout the county and visit senior centers, visit libraries or Lions clubs, Rotary clubs, and familiarize people with it," she said.

Scheer said the move from paper also should cut down printing costs, which ran about $12,750 in the 2004 general election.

"And, guess what? We will not be running to Tonganoxie at 5 o'clock (on Election Day) because we're about to run out of ballots," she said.

Scheer said she still will give some paper ballots to poll workers, who provide them to provisional voters -- those voters whose names are not on the voter registration list in their precinct or who had recently moved. Those provisional ballots must be tallied by hand.

Looking to the future

Scheer also believes electronic voting is the first step in other advances. One possibility in the future, she said, would allow Leavenworth County voters to cast ballots at any polling place. Such a centralized system would be a convenience for commuters who must backtrack in the morning or evening to vote.

"It would just mean that each polling place that's open would have to have a computer that has all the registered voters on it," she said. "... That's one of the options that I think would be really a fun thing to have because I really think a lot of our people go out of town to work. I think it would really be an awesome thing."

Scheer said she assumes some county residents will be skeptical about the switch to electronic voting. But she believes the system will work well.

"There have been a lot of counties throughout the country that have used these for a number of years," she said. "I think these are more trustworthy and better-tested than the old lever machines that were available a number of years ago."

Several Kansas counties have used electronic voting machines for several years, including Johnson, Sedgwick and Butler counties, Scheer said. On Monday, though, Douglas County commissioners expressed concern about abandoning paper ballots, and they rejected electronic voting.

Instead of all Douglas County ballots being counted by scanners at the county courthouse, scanners will be used at each polling place. Voters will place ballots in scanners, which will alert voters if they mis-marked a ballot -- such as voting for two people for one office -- and allow them to cast a second-chance ballot.

Scheer said Leavenworth County officials considered the system that Douglas County is moving to. But then backed away.

"I had some election board workers in, and we did a demonstration," she said.

The consensus of that group was that the county most likely would move to electronic voting in the future -- and those poll workers questioned spending money on an interim step.

No more booths

For voters heading to Leavenworth County polls in August, they first will notice that polling booths are gone, Scheer said.

"It's going to be a machine that's going to sit there," she said.

But the machine comes with sides, which will provide privacy for voters.

"You wouldn't have people standing around you, waiting to vote," Scheer said.

The machine itself will include a touch-screen, on which voters will select candidates. The machine will review ballots for common mistakes. And it will remind voters that they didn't vote in a race and give them a chance to do so.

"You can't over-vote on those," Scheer said. "Over-voting is, a lot of times, what disqualifies that race. You can change your vote. You can write in."

Scheer said she plans to order, on average, enough voting machines to provide one for every 250 people who vote in a precinct.

"Some of the election people are going to go for 300, but I just don't want huge lines," she said.

And while the move to electronic voting will reduce printing costs, Scheer said she isn't sure whether it will affect the amount the county spends on poll workers' pay.

"Voters are still going to have to check in at a registration book," she said. "We're going to have to have somebody who helps the voter. In fact, the first time or two that we use the new machines, we may have one or two additional people to help the voters feel comfortable."

But for some county residents, the transition will be a cinch.

"I know that a lot of people, as transitory as this county is, have been voting on electronic machines for a number of years," Scheer said.

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