Thursday, July 21, 2005

Elected officials get look at new voting machines

Staff Writer

County and state election officials are facing stiff timelines to get Mississippians educated in the use of the state’s new Diebold voting machines by the federally-mandated deadline of Jan. 1, 2006.

To that end, John Eads, assistant secretary of state elections, joined locally elected officials and interested citizens in Holly Springs’ first educational meeting last week to talk about the new voting equipment, demonstrate its use and to encourage local citizens to prepare for next year’s elections.

State Representative Kelvin Buck kicked the meeting off at Annie’s Restaurant, saying elected officials are “interested in people not fearing the use of the machines,” which are about the size of a laptop computer. He said an effort should get underway to educate voters “so the transition goes smoother in bringing it on line.”

Buck said he is a part of an ad hoc voting task force formed to educate.

“We thought it was important to make an effort so everyone will know what’s coming,” he said to about a dozen gathered for the first meeting which included county supervisors George Zinn, Ronnie Joe Bennett and Willie Flemon, and county administrator Larry Hall.

Before demonstrating the new voting machines, Eads said the Diebold voting machine the state is purchasing with federal dollars through the U.S. Congress’ “Help America Vote Act” has two features to improve voting accuracy.

The second chance voting feature allows voters to change their votes before casting their ballot.

Under federal guidelines, the machines are required to let the voter know if they have overvoted (by voting for two candidates for one office) or have undervoted (failed to vote for any candidate for a given office).

The other requirement under the HAVA is that voting machines meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The blind or hearing impaired must be able to use the machines.

“The Mississippi Legislature incorporated all these requirements into law,” Eads said.

Eads explained how the Diebold voting machine was selected out of three systems that were bid. The company provided the lowest bid and the best bid and met the functionality requirements, he said.

Diebold bid $22 million but contract negotiations between the company and the state brought the fee in line with what the state had on hand to spend. Under the contract Diebold is providing five years of technical and educational support to get election commissioners, circuit clerks and citizens familiar with the new equipment. The state is also spearheading an intensive educational campaign in all counties to make the transition as smooth as possible for voters under the tight implementation time-line imposed by federal law, Eads said.

Mississippi has a $15 million budget to get the new voting requirements implemented. Lever and punch card machines are now illegal to use in elections, he said.

The state has also tried to equitably distribute the new voting equipment among all counties using a formula it has devised to provide as many machines free as possible. Counties who need more machines will have to purchase them or consolidate small voting precincts to make their allocations work, he said.

The formula for apportioning the machines to the counties was based on election turnout for each county in the last two presidential elections and governor’s races. The formula showed average voter turnout per machine to be 190 voters. The state used that figure to apportion one machine for every 190 people who voted in those elections.

Marshall County’s average voting turnout was 10,663 so the county is eligible to receive 56 free voting machines.

According to Lucy Carpenter, circuit clerk, the county has been conducting elections with 68 voting machines. If no voting precincts are consolidated, the board of supervisors is considering purchasing another dozen machines to cover election needs. Extra machines are often needed when there is heavy voter turnout at some precincts or when some equipment problems crop up on election day.

Marshall County will have to decide how many machines to distribute among its 24 voting precincts.

The Diebold System stores voting data in three places and counties may purchase printers to produce paper copies of every ballot cast should a candidate challenge the election result.

Monies for the printers are not included in the state’s budget and local governments are likely to have to shoulder that expense, if they want printers. But the Diebold voting machines are already set up internally to run a printer if one is added.

The machines also are equipped with batteries that will maintain machine operation for five hours, should there be a power outage.

Eads said the state does not have the $2.2 million it would cost to provide printers and that if printers had been included the state would not have been able to provide as many voting machines to counties at no cost. Each Diebold voting machine will cost the state about $2,900 each if all 82 counties opt to participate in the distribution of the machines.

That figure could be higher if all counties do not choose to use the Diebold system, according to Lucy Carpenter, circuit clerk.

Under an agreement with Diebold, counties can purchase extra voting machines for about $2,750 as long as the machines are ordered within the next two years, Eads said.

The new election process will include the following features or steps:

  • poll workers confirm a voter is registered at sign-in as usual.
  • after sign-in voters are given a ballot card - a plastic card that is inserted into the voting machine to start the program for the ballot. The card is returned to poll workers after voting.
  • several language options may be selected.
  • large or regular text size may be selected.
  • screen contrast may be selected to sharpen the image.
  • voting instructions show up on the screen.
  • the ballot shows up on the screen and the voter goes through the ballot making selections for candidates by touching a box beside the name of the candidate of choice.

    Voters can change candidates by touching the box again to negate a vote and then pressing the box next to another candidate’s name. The process is called second chance voting and is also available on Marshall County’s touch-screen voting machines.

  • voters can write in a candidate’s name.
  • after completion of voting, the voter can check their ballot to see if they have undervoted or if they choose to make changes prior to casting their ballot.

    The Diebold will allow a voter to omit voting for an office on the ballot but it will not allow an over- or undervote.

    “None of the features offered by the Diebold, other than the language option (Spanish, English or other) will be new to Marshall County residents because we are already doing that,” said Carpenter.

  • curbside voting can be requested as the machines can be carried easily.
  • other features include a touchpad for the visually impaired, ear-phone instructions for the hearing impaired and tilting of the screen for voters in wheelchairs.

Eads said the Diebold machines are built in North Carolina.

Counties will not be forced to use the Diebold machines but if they opt out, they have to meet the HAVA requirements in some other way. If counties opt in, they get free machines and the state’s insurance covers any liability questions that may arise.

All states will be required to have new voting equipment selected and ready by Jan. 1, 2006. The new equipment will be used for the first time in Mississippi in the June primary elections and in the 2007 statewide elections.

States that have selected the Diebold voting machine so far include Georgia, Maryland, Alaska, Utah and Mississippi.

ADA requires that polling places be accessible but each county is required to implement ADA requirements on its own. Some federal dollars are available under separate grants for those improvements.

Eads said, “This is a fast-moving effort right now. We will have massive voter education prior to the election using the Diebold.”

Carpenter said meetings similar to the one held last week in Holly Springs will be conducted around the state next week for elected officials and county administrators to learn more about the use of the equipment.

“Whatever system the county chooses to buy we will have extensive training in the precincts using poll workers to demonstrate the equipment prior to elections,” Carpenter said. “That’s what we did when we got new voting machines in 1988. They were the Cadillac then, though.”

A new feature of the Diebold not available on the county’s current election equipment is a voting machine interface with the state-wide voter registry. The interface allows the public to receive election results immediately after the polls close, state-wide. The public will be able to observe real time election returns via the Internet within hours after the polls close, Carpenter said.

“We (circuit clerks and the chairmen of the elections committees) are talking about early voting now,” Carpenter said. “There will have to be laws passed to do that. I know there are going to be bills introduced in this term of the Legislature that will allow for early voting.”

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