12/14/05 — Counties take look at voting machines

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Counties take look at voting machines

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on December 14, 2005 1:57 PM

Wayne and Duplin election officials got a look Tuesday at a variety of voting machines from which they will have to choose before the next general election.

State lawmakers have ordered counties to upgrade their voting systems and to use machines that meet state approval. A series of machine demonstrations was held across the state this week. Wayne and Duplin officials viewed machines on display at East Carolina University in Greenville.

Wayne Election Supervisor Gary Sims said the demonstration will help Wayne officials make a decision. But he said they will need more information about costs before reaching a conclusion.

County Manager Lee Smith estimated it would cost Wayne as much as $1 million to upgrade its system. The state will pick up some of the cost and some federal grant money could be available as well, he said.

Smith and Sims said the new system needs to be in place as soon as possible so that election workers will be familiar with it. Counties must have met state guidelines for choosing a system and entered into a contract to purchase the machines no later than Jan. 20.

"We are kind of under the gun here," said Wayne County Commissioner John Bell.

Duplin officials are under an even tighter deadline. Because Duplin uses an older voting system it was eligible for additional money. But Duplin has to have chosen its new system by the end of the year in order to qualify for that money.

Duplin Elections Board Supervisor Suzanne Southerland said officials there have been considering what machines to buy since they held a public meeting in the spring.

"We knew the time would come when we'd be in a hurry, and we wanted to see what we could ahead of time," Southerland said.

He said Duplin would hold another public meeting soon to receive input from voters.

On Wednesday, vendors showed how machines worked but did not discuss how much they cost. State officials are negotiating with the vendors to obtain a price that would be the same for each county.

Sims said he needs to know more about the potential cost before presenting a recommendation to the county Board of Commissioners.

To help cover the cost of the machines, the state Board of Elections suggested each county board prepare a grant request. Funding from the Help America Vote Act election fund is based on the formula of $12,000 per precinct, $12,000 per one-stop sites and the price of two backup units.

The formula also includes $1 for each voter that cast a ballot in the 2004 presidential election. If the total for each tabulator is between $10,000 and $100,000, the grant will be issued, according to state officials.

Sims said he believes the grant would provide Wayne with $400,000, but that he hopes more money is available.

"We hope to apply for additional grants, but it's not a guarantee. There is a lot of competition out there," Sims said.

Sims said he hopes he and his staff can become familiar with the new voting machines by March.