03/26/06 — Machines still need testing

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Machines still need testing

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on March 26, 2006 2:04 AM

Wayne County's new voting machines are in, but Board of Elections Director Gary Sims said the tabulators aren't yet ready for the May primary or fall election -- and there is some doubt they will run properly even then.

"It's like having a car without an engine. We haven't been given the data cards to run tests on them," he said.

Wake County officials have been able to test their new machines, Sims said, but with unfavorable results. Wayne County officials would like to know soon if they will be facing the same dilemma.

"Some of theirs failed their testing standards and they might do the same thing here," Sims said.

If any tabulator fails the county's testing standards or doesn't operate properly on Election Day, the machines would have to be shipped to Omaha, Neb., which is Election Systems and Software's headquarters, for repair.

Although the machines were provided by a North Carolina vendor, all responsibility shifted to Elections Systems and Software once they were delivered.

The county was required to upgrade its voting equipment in response to new federal and state mandates. Last year, the state Board of Elections implemented four new requirements for all 100 counties in North Carolina, including the necessity for each to provide a paper trail of all votes.

The new equipment also had to meet the requirements of the federal Help America Vote Act, which was designed to help blind and disabled voters cast ballots using specialized machines.

Counties were offered two vendor choices in December, which were narrowed to one later that month when bidder Diebold pulled out of the process, saying the state mandates were too difficult to satisfy, leaving Election Systems and Software as the only choice.

In January, Wayne Board of Elections members presented their findings to the county's Board of Commissioners, which ordered enough AutoMark machines and Model 100 Precinct Ballot Counters to meet the county's needs.

The AutoMark machine allows blind, illiterate and disabled voters the chance to cast ballots by hearing the ballot choices and selecting using a touch screen or, for voters who are unable to touch the screen, a sip/puff tube, to make a selection.

The Precinct Ballot Counter is a paper ballot counter that reads a person's selection and tallies the results. The resulting printout meets the new state requirement.

Sims said the county ordered 34 AutoMark machines because that number would allow additional machines if the other machines malfunctioned. The county will not have any backup machines this year because Elections Systems and Software only sent 31.

Dealing with one vendor that is trying to supply the entire state with election machines can be difficult, Sims said, leaving the county at the vendor's mercy.

"I'm having to get on my knees and beg to get anything. But, don't get me wrong, I'm humble and grateful for anything we get," he said.

Sims said he has been worried about complications since the first time he heard each county would deal with the same vendor.

Wayne County has only received a portion of the equipment promised, and Elections Systems and Software has limited the number of staff that can attend training sessions.

Sims said he understands that getting the first mach-ines up and running will take time.

"This is a supply and demand-type situation. I know there are people working 100 mph to get us everything we need," he said.

But waiting can be stressful, he added.

At this point, Sims said the county has just enough ballots to cover absentee voters, and he is unsure when the county will receive the remaining ballots.

"I'm used to already being ready at this point, and I don't have much in my hands and early one-stop voting is coming in a couple of weeks," Sims said.

Early one-stop voting begins on April 13 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Wayne County Board of Elections office, located at 209 S. William St. The primary election begins May 2.

Sims said if the remaining equipment does not arrive, the county could conduct hand-eye counts of each ballot -- whatever is necessary to have an election.

"We are not afraid to have an election, but it might not be what the people are accustomed to," Sims said.

County election boards and voting organizations throughout the nation are dealing with similar problems. Many are attempting to get in compliance with the federal requirements.

Some of the problems and complaints in other states have been with the same company that provides Wayne County with its voting machines.

Regardless, Sims said he, his staff and the board will be ready to conduct an election in Wayne County.

"Even if we have to work 80 or 100 hours a week, we are going to get this done," he said.