States begin to adopt e-voting

States begin to adopt e-voting

States are making steady strides toward electronic voting systems. But don’t throw out your dimpled chad-o-meter just yet.

The House of Representatives passed HR 3295, the “Help America Vote Act of 2001,” late last year. Now stalled in the Senate, the Act would authorize a one-time payment of $400 million to states or counties to replace punch-card voting systems in time for the November 2002 general elections. The bill also would authorize $2.5 billion in election fund payments to states over three years to help them develop more accurate lists of eligible voters, encourage voter turnout and improve equipment.

Of course, there’s no shortage of companies that want to help states and counties replace their old voting systems. But not every locale is rushing to sign up for the latest in voting technology. Punch-card systems are still the most popular, with a third of districts in the nation using them.

“I think states and counties are rightly cautious,” said Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor of political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-director of the CalTech/MIT Voting Project to develop new voting technology. “New technology is not always better. An engineer might design equipment to fix one problem but create another, unanticipated difficulty. There’s no Consumer Reports for voting equipment, and that is a big problem for counties and states.”

Several states have decertified punch-card voting equipment, including California and Florida, but some states and counties are resisting eliminating the technology, notably Illinois and Ohio, Ansolabehere said.

Some of the early forays into electronic voting systems have been encouraging, as in Riverside County, Calif. While officials in Palm Beach County, Fla., were scrutinizing chads for weeks after the November 2000 election, the election results in Riverside County came in with “no problems,” said Mischelle Townsend, registrar of voters for Riverside.

Riverside has used the Edge direct recording election (DRE) devices from Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. of Hayward, Calif., since November 2000, Townsend said.

Weighing about 45 pounds, the Edge is a touch-screen standalone computer that comes in a carrying case. The unit sets up either on a desktop or with its own collapsible table and side flaps for voter privacy. The Edge’s touch-screen monitor lets users cast their votes by touching the screen next to a candidate’s name and using buttons to scroll through ballots.

Paper cuts

Election officials print out the election results and remove a cartridge from the unit to take to the central election office, where the final votes are tabulated.

California’s primary elections on March 5 were, like the November 2000 elections, very close, Townsend said. For the first time, voters who were not affiliated with a political party were allowed to participate in the primary. “It caused tremendous confusion at the polls and with poll workers,” she said. “Other counties were scrambling with stacks of paper ballots,” she said. “We just had a card activation unit that we gave to the voters. It was much easier.”

Townsend estimates the county has saved at least $600,000 each year by not printing paper ballots.

Officials from Palm Beach County recently came to observe a Riverside County election, Townsend said. They were so impressed they decided to go with the Edge devices, she said.

Townsend said the county’s electronic voting system won a 99 percent approval rating from the public. “Senior citizens, in particular, have embraced the new technology,” she said. “They’ve been loving it.”

The Sequoia Edge system is secure, Townsend said. “That’s one reason we chose it. Nobody’s sending the votes on a network or over a modem. There’s no outside port to be hacked or tampered with,” she said.

The old voting booth with levers and a swoop of velvet curtain for privacy did have a certain dramatic charm, said Alisha Alexander, assistant to the elections administrator in Prince George’s County, Md. “And they were actually quite accurate, at least in our experience,” Alexander said. But the Maryland State Board of Elections late last year approved touch-screen voting systems from Global/Diebold Election Systems, a division of Diebold Inc. of North Canton, Ohio, in four counties: Allegany, Dorchester, Prince George’s and Montgomery.

Maryland chose the Global/Diebold systems out of six finalists because the touch-screen monitors were easy to use, said David Heller, a project manager with the board.

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