Mock election tests voting tech

Harris County, Texas, is taking its new electronic voting machines for a test drive

In a mock election Aug. 17, Harris County, Texas, will introduce modern election technology to voters raised on punch cards.

Although the election isn't official — choices will include George Washington and Abraham Lincoln — this is the county's first step toward acquainting voters and election workers with an electronic system that will debut for real this fall.

To make sure voters are comfortable with the change to the eSlate Direct Record Electronic voting system, county officials also have produced videos and brochures, developed a Web site (www.harrisvotes.org) and given presentations to civic groups. The outreach program is part of a $25 million deal with Hart InterCivic and Dell Computer Corp.

"We want to be sure everything operates as it's supposed to," said Tony Sirvello III, the county's administrator of elections. "And we want to be assured that everyone will know what to do."

Harris' adoption of electronic voting makes its election system one of the most progressive in the country, up there with Riverside County, Calif., which last fall adopted touch-screen equipment, another form of electronic voting.

The eSlate machine is about the size of a legal pad. After punching in a code to get the correct ballot, and choosing between English or Spanish, voters turn a wheel to progress through the ballot and hit a large button when they see their choice on the screen. When voters hit enter, their choice becomes bold, making the selection obvious. At the end of the ballot, voters can review all of their selections, only casting the ballot when they're satisfied.

For the mock election, county officials will set up equipment in 11 high-traffic locations, including the courthouse and community centers. Sirvello said if 500 people sample the technology at each location, it should be enough to gauge how things are working.

The mock election is the first big step in the county's phased adoption of electronic voting. The next step, a round of early voting Oct. 20, is significant because the votes will count — and as many as 25 percent of Houston-area voters vote early. For the bigger November election, the county will still use punch cards, although eSlate devices will be on display at all the precincts.

The goal is to have the system entirely in place for the November 2002 election.

In 1998, when the county faced more choices than could be fit on a ballot, a county task force was convened to begin researching new voting systems. Officials first chose an optical-scan system, but decided that would be a lateral move — from one paper-based system to another. The county issued the request for proposals for the electronic system last year.

"By November 2002, we'll be a showplace for elections in this country,'' Sirvello said.

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