Thursday, July 7, 2005

State introduces new voting machines

Secretary of State Eric Clark announced last week that new touch-screen voting machines have been selected for the 2006 elections, following a thorough and careful study by the state selection committee.

Diabold Election Systems were selected because they are easy to use and are secure, he said.

“These voting machines will greatly improve the accuracy and integrity of every election in Mississippi,” Clark said. “Of all the machines we studied they were the most user-friendly and came at the lowest price. This purchase is another major step in making historic improvements to the elections process in our state.”

According to information in the press release, Diebold Elections Systems was selected at the recommendation of the Mississippi Department of Information Technology Services (ITS). The state will purchase 5,164 machines at a cost of $2905 each or a total of $15 million. The purchase price includes training of election commissioners and circuit clerks, voter education and five years of technical support.

The state will pay $750,000 or five percent of the cost of the voting machines and the federal government will pay $14.25 million using money appropriated by Congress under the “Help America Vote Act.”

The Act requires that all scanner machines, lever machines, and punch-card machines must be replaced by 2006. This means that 75 of Mississippi’s 83 counties will have to change machines by Jan. 1, 2006. The law also requires that at least one machine be fully accessible to the disabled in every polling precinct. Marshall County has 24 voting precincts and has used the touch-screen machine, a direct recording electronic device presently used by one other county. That means that Marshall County voters already have experience in the use of touch-screen electronic voting.

Other information in the Secretary’s press release included:

  • The touch-screen machine will not permit a voter to cast a vote for more than one candidate for a single office and also gives voters a second chance to make sure they have made the selection they intended. These features reduce the potential for a voter to make an error.

    Analysis of the 2004 presidential vote shows that more than 54,000 Mississippians may have had their votes not counted due to inaccurate and out-of-date voting machines. Punch card, lever and central scanner machines produced the highest error rates.

  • The new machines will be fully accessible to all voters, regardless of disability. The blind, hearing or visually impaired or physically challenged can cast a ballot in private on the new machines.
  • Mississippi to date has received $29.5 million in federal and state matching funds to help implement the changes required in the “Help America Vote Act.” Congress is working on funding for the third and last year which combined with matching funds will bring $6 million more to improve the elections process.

“I am encouraging full funding this final year so we can make additional improvements to the process and these new voting machines,” Clark said.

Clark said if Congress fully funds the “Help America Vote Act” next year he will push for a “voter-verified paper trail” for all new machines the state uses. The device will allow voters to see a paper printout of their selections in each race before casting their ballots, he said. The printed ballots serve to back up the electronically counted votes. Cost to install this device on the new Diebold machines would be about $1.2 million to $2 million.

“We may see a ‘voter-verified’ paper trail required by the federal Election Assistance Commission,” Clark said. “The machines we are buying today are secure and tamper-proof. Adding that feature can only further bolster the confidence of Mississippi voters.”

He said full funding is necessary to meet federal requirements so that unfunded mandates are not passed down to county governments and the taxpayers.

The Secretary’s staff will conduct extensive voter education seminars in all 82 counties in coming months to help local officials and voters to become familiar with operation of the new machines, Clark said.

“Voter education and training for county officials and poll workers are essential to improving our elections,” he said.

Georgia put new Diebold touch-screen machines in every polling place in 2004 and ranked second greatest in improving election accuracy in the country, reducing uncounted or residual votes from 3.5 percent to 0.39 percent. Cathy Cox, secretary of state in Georgia, credited the new machines with saving 103,000 of the citizens’ votes that would likely have been thrown out if the older machines had been used, Clark reported.

Cox attributed the success in the 2004 election to overall voter preparedness of election officials, poll workers and voters and Diebold’s help in implementing the process, Clark said.

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