01/11/06 — Voters test new machine choices

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Voters test new machine choices

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on January 11, 2006 1:56 PM

Wayne County residents took an early look at voting equipment that could be used in the next election at the county's Board of Elections board room Tuesday.

Board of Elections director Gary Sims said the board chose the cheapest configuration of voting machines to accommodate voters, but no matter which purchase is made by the county, the equipment will need to last.

"We have to make a purchase on equipment that will carry Wayne County five to 10 years into the future," Sims said.

New equipment will be needed throughout North Carolina following a state mandate that made many counties' voting equipment obsolete. The mandate requires counties to count absentee ballots by precinct and to provide a paper trail so voters can verify the ballots, Sims said.

However, each county is also required to comply with federal voting mandates, which require each county to provide equipment that could be used by the visually impaired, illiterate or other handicapped voters.

All voting equipment is required to be in place before the May elections, for which early voting begins April 13.

To assist the counties in reconfiguring its voting systems, federal and state grants have been issued. Wayne County will receive more than $400,000 in grants. However, the county still is expected to pay the remaining $100,000 for the equipment.

On Tuesday, Tom Janyssek, a regional sales manager for New Bern-based Printelect, presented the equipment Wayne County could be using in the next election. The voting machines are made and distributed by Omaha, Neb.-based Election Systems & Software, which was the only bidder for the state elections equipment contract.

Printelect employees will assist all 100 counties during the purchase and implementation of voting machines during the next year, Janyssek said.

"With our two offices in North Carolina, you will have in-state support. We will do a full turn-key operation of help when it comes to the elections," he said.

However, most of the assistance would come from the actual voting equipment.

A lot can happen to a ballot from the time it is handed to a voter to the time it is cast, especially an absentee ballot, Janyssek said. These problems can slow down the election day process and prevent a person from voting.

With new technology, however, voting equipment, such as the M-100 precinct ballot counter presented Tuesday morning, can read a ballot that is torn or marked incorrectly, Janyssek said.

"Let's say you vote for two people in one race. Place the ballot into the machine, and it will beep quickly back at you. Then, the screen will tell you exactly what is wrong. If you hit the return button, the machine will give back the ballot, and the problem can be fixed," Janyssek said.

Any other questionable mark, such as marking an X instead of marking the blank, would be caught by the tabulator, he said. As for tears in the ballots, if the tear does not impede on the machine's ability to read the ballot, then the machine will accept the ballot because of its Intelligent Mark Recognition visible light scanning technology.

Sims said one of his main concerns for the May election is that the machines would not be able to handle the possible number of ballot styles. Since Wayne County has many districts and precincts that intersect, Sims said there could be 200 more ballot styles than the county has ever been asked to handle for one election.

"A new part of the state law says that you have to report absentee ballots by precinct. Wayne County has many jurisdictions. We could go from managing 25 to 30 ballot styles to the Board of Elections ending up with several hundred in the primary election," Sims said.

Janyssek said the M-100 model is equipped with a card that could be programmed for each precinct.

Another model, the M-650 central ballot tabulator, would allow the board to count a large number of absentee ballots or ballots during a recount from the board's central office, Sims said.

The board would want to purchase the M-100 model for each of the county's 30 precincts, Sims said. The same amount would be necessary for the AutoMARK voter assist terminal to comply with federal voting requirements.

According to the Help America Vote Act, each county needs voting equipment that assists blind, paraplegic, illiterate and other mentally and physically challenged voters in casting their ballot.

Janyssek said the AutoMARK is able to meet those requirements because it can help anyone from a voter who is completely visually impaired to a person with a broken arm fill out a ballot.

For the blind, the machine scans and reads the ballot in a computerized or human voice based on the voter's preference, Janyssek said. Both voices are specially recorded at ES&S's headquarters in Omaha for each district that uses the company's voting equipment.

The voter would listen to either one of the voices through headphones and make selections from a Braille keypad. After selections are made, the voter would be able to review the answers before submitting the ballot to the tabulator.

Since the M-100 model was created to accept a ballot fed into the machine upside down or backwards, blind voters could complete the voting process by submitting their own ballot, Janyssek said.

If a voter is visually impaired, but not blind, the screen's font can be increased, Janyssek said. If the font is not large enough to be read, then that person could also use the headphones, he said. The machine even includes a sip/puff tube for paraplegic voters who are unable to use the touch screen or touch pad. Janyssek said.

Billie Bethea, a member of the Wayne Federation of the Blind, was the first blind county resident to use the machine during the forum, and he said he was happy with the results.

"I think it is a great machine," Bethea said. "I think it is a real good gesture, and it provides help when you need help."

Sims said he and the county's Board of Elections members will present their findings to the Board of Commissioners concerning what equipment the county needs and the money needed to purchase that equipment.

Wayne County Manager Lee Smith said any additional costs aside from state or federal grants for the equipment might need to be taken from county reserves or the county's savings.

"It's not budgeted. We had actually put in our capital improvement plan in two years to replace the machines at a cost of $950,000, and we may have to do that anyway. But this has been thrown at us after July 1, so it's not budgeted," Smith said.