Carbon preparing to test voting equipment
The Utah Association of Counties will conduct its annual management conference in the local area this week.
County officials from across the state will visit the community and attend sessions at various meeting sites. Educational seminars will be presented on topics ranging from accident prevention to legislative issues.
One issue on the agenda is a session presented by Lt. Gov. Olene Walker. The state government official will explain the proposed changes in voting equipment used within Utah.
The matter will be of particular interest to Carbon residents because Clerk Robert Pero has been actively involved in the change and the county could be one of the pilot sites for any system that the state decides to buy.
"New federal regulations will go into effect in the next few years," explained Pero. "The federal government wants to basically get rid of punch cards."
The legislation was originally aimed at giving physically challenged voters the chance to have at least one machine in poling places on which they could cast ballots. That meant a machine that could be used for someone who could not hear or see, among other disabilities.
But after the last presidential vote hung in the balance for weeks in Florida because of Votamatic machines, the push has been to change the entire system like many Americans have supported for years. People have questioned why voting officials still use punch cards in the computer age.
Late last year, the state formed a committee to decide which type of system to switch to.
There are a number of companies that offer computer based voting systems, so the committee has been reviewing the various systems by forming subgroups and traveling to different places around the United States that have been holding elections and using the systems.
Of course, this type of conversion will not be cheap, but the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) offers a grant system which will match funds to states that change over.
If the state of Utah gets rid of all the Votamatics, they will be able to get a grant of around $28 million to use for the change. That will mean various counties will have to come up with matching funds to implement the changes.
Pero estimates that the cost for Carbon County would be about $20,000 over the next three years.
After a vendor show of various kinds of systems in March, the four subgroups formed from the committee received assignments to travel to four areas to observe the entire electronic election process on four different systems.
One group was assigned to a district in Texas, another Florida and another will soon be traveling to Las Vegas to observe their system.
Pero was assigned to a group that went to Forsyth County, Ga., at the beginning of April.
The local clerk-auditor travelled with three other people ,including the lieutenant governor, and spent three days observing an election conducted by officials using a system manufactured by Diebold, a company known for banking security and locks.
"We arrived by plane at 1 a.m. and had to be at the Forsyth County registrars office by 7 a.m. that same morning," noted Pero. "We spent that day going over the system with Gary Smith (the clerk-auditor equivalent in Forsyth). That afternoon, we went out to some of the sites as crews set up the equipment at the polls for the next days election."
The next day, the group went to a number of polling places, watched as people cast election ballots and talked with voting judges as well as residents.
"We didn't find one person who didn't like the electronic system better than the old way of doing things," he states. "And that isn't just from one experience. They have used the equipment for three elections now."
That evening when the polls closed, the group watched as judges worked with the machines by packing them up, printing out the results and pulling out the DRE (Digital Recording Equipment) cards.
At the end of the day, each machine has the total number of voters registered on it and the judges compare that electronic registry to the sign in ledger at the judges desk to be sure the numbers match. They then print out the results and post one on the door of the polling place and send everything in a sealed up condition to the courthouse.
"Each machine has a serial number and it matches the serial number of the DRE," explained Pero. "The software reads the card and prints out a report and posts the results to the counties website. They were done counting the votes in an hour and a half. It was a small election with only two things on the ballot, but they have over 200,000 registered voters."
As soon as all the groups have travelled and reviewed the selected equipment, the committee will start the process of developing a recommendation for which system to use.
"Hopefully, we can get the price of the machines down to about $2,500 a piece," indicated Pero. "The whole state will be changed over by the year 2006."
The goal is to have uniformity throughout the state. Right now, 23 counties use Votamatics, four use paper ballots and two use optical scanning systems. It is the goal to have one computer driven system that is the same all over.
During the next couple of months, there will be public hearings on the plan as submitted.
Once the plan has been approved, a few counties will receive equipment as pilot programs. Those will be evaluated and then the state will start to employ the selected technology.
"Education will be the key to this being successful," stated Pero. "I can see us doing a lot of public involvement kinds of things to get people used to the new way of voting and hopefully to educate those that either haven't voted before or have not been voting. The hope is that a new streamlined system like this will increase voter activity."