New voting systems offer tough choices

New voting systems offer tough choices

Experts say spending on voting technology will double

Source: Gartner Inc.

Beverly Kaufman, county clerk of Harris County, Texas, tries one of the new direct recording electronic voting terminals the county used in a recent mock election.

The eSlate voting terminal from Dell and Hart InterCivic lets voters make their selections with a rotary wheel and record their votes by pressing Enter.

Government buyers have different technologies on their budget ballots

Two years ago, Beverly Kaufman anxiously looked over the choices in voting technology. The Harris County, Texas, county clerk was planning a $25 million voting system purchase for the third largest county in the country.

This fall, Kaufman expresses calm and confidence about her decision. She has provided the county's 1.6 million registered voters with direct record electronic (DRE) voting with the eSlate 3000 from Hart InterCivic Inc. of Austin, Texas, and Dell Computer Corp.

'We went into the process thinking we would go with an optical scan machine like so many other counties have done,' Kaufman said. 'But when we saw so many products in the development stages and saw the increased attention to accessibility issues for the disabled, we decided we just weren't ready to buy a new system until now.'

Kaufman is not alone in facing tough voting equipment buying decisions. Many other county clerks, state and city election administrators, and county councils are battling the same voting technology demons as the aftermath of the 2000 general election continues to reverberate at the local and state levels.

IT companies saw the outrage and confusion caused by Florida's chad problem last fall as an opportunity to promote their chad-free voting systems. The Federal Election Commission lists 22 U.S. companies and two international companies as established vendors with everything from DREs to optical scanners and punch card voting systems. FEC also lists 18 emerging vendors who are trying to bring to market Internet and telephone voting systems.

Many officials fear that costly new systems could become obsolete quickly or cause problems worse than a dimpled chad, according to voting specialists in industry and government.

Still, state and local governments are expected to spend $638 million and $887 million on new voting systems in 2002 and 2003, respectively, said Rishi Sood, a state and local government principal analyst for Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn., a research and advisory company that tracks IT trends. Even with federal funding unclear as two bills languish in Congress, the number of counties, cities and states buying or starting the process to buy new voting technology is increasing.

Three county officials who recently bought new systems said their choice came down to such issues as the type of machine previously used, the type of technology being considered and how comfortable they felt with the new system.

Harris County, for instance, went from using a punch card system held together with what Kaufman said was 'bubble gum and wire' to one of the most advanced machines on the market.

'I was amazed how strongly the task force leaned toward Hart InterCivic's system,' she said. 'It was not a touch screen so we didn't have to worry about calibration, damage and maintenance, the weight of the unit, the security features or handicapped accessibility.'

The final contestants

Harris County's task force looked at systems from Election Systems and Software Inc. of Omaha, Neb., Global Election Systems Inc. of McKinney, Texas, and Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. of Berkeley, Calif., in addition to Hart InterCivic's eSlate. The committee seriously considered only Sequoia's and Hart InterCivic's DREs, Kaufman said.

Harris County bought 8,400 eSlates, of which 1,500 are disabled-equipped units, with associated software, training and support. The county is financing the $25 million purchase through low-interest loans.

ESlate is about the size of a legal pad and weighs eight pounds. Poll officials load all ballot information into the machine through the Judges Booth Controller, which provides power and data to all the machines at a precinct. ESlate lists the voters' choices digitally. Voters turn a ribbed plastic wheel to make their choices and press a separate Enter key to record their votes.

The system stores votes on the eSlate device, a flash memory card in the Judges Booth Controller and a flash memory card on a mobile ballot box. Poll workers can send all of a precinct's results via modem to a regional or state tabulation center or insert the memory card from the Judges Booth Controller into a PC for reading.

Kaufman said eSlate's accessibility features made it stand out. The system can store ballots as audible .wav files so visually impaired voters can use headphones to hear the selections and vote. Voters in wheelchairs who cannot use their arms can blow into and out of a 'sip-and-puff' wand to vote.

Also, the system can display ballots in different languages.

Kaufman said eSlate will be used for early voting in March 2002 and will be totally phased in by November 2002.

'We believe we will finish counting the votes much earlier and our overall cost to run an election will be less,' Kaufman said. 'We felt we couldn't wait around until Austin or Washington gave us money because by the time funds were available, we may have been facing problems.'

Kaufman agonized over her decision, but Maxine Madison, clerk of Modoc County, Calif., and Peter Eagler, freeholder director of Passaic County, N.J., had easier times buying new voting systems.

Modoc County has a population of about 9,500 and about 5,500 registered voters. Many of the residents are retirees so Madison looked for a system that would be easy to learn and not very different from the punch card machines they had been using.

Madison sought the advice of election officials from surrounding counties and Reno, Nev., before falling in line with its neighbors and buying Global Election System's AccuVote, an optical scan system.

'I wasn't sure if the county was ready for a touch-screen system,' Madison said. 'We thought it was important to have a paper record of the vote in case of a recount.'

Modoc County bought nine machines, software and training for $90,000 under a five-year lease-purchase agreement.

Voters darken ovals next to their choices, and the optical scan machine uses visible light technology to read ballots. It records the votes on a memory card in the system. The system also alerts ballot workers about overvotes or undervotes so voters can correct their errors before leaving the polling place.

With AccuVote, poll workers tally votes by inserting a memory card into a PC to tabulate the results, then sending data by modem to a host computer at the courthouse.

'We are hoping this system speeds up the amount of time it takes to count ballots and saves us money,' Madison said. 'This machine decreases the amount of handling of the ballots and there are fewer chances of problems.'

No training necessary

Passaic County's choice of Election System and Software's Votronic 2000 touch-screen system also was a matter of feeling comfortable.

'It is an exact duplicate of the ballot layout in the lever machines that we have been using for 30 years,' Passaic County's Eagler said. 'Voters only will have to learn how to run a new machine and not learn how to vote again.'

Passaic County, which has a population of 490,000, spent about $1 million on 150
V-2000 machines and plans to buy another 270 machines by early next year.

The county's freeholders, who hold powers similar to a county council, formed a panel and invited county and community leaders to a demonstration by several vendors. The panel decided between Sequoia's and ES&S' touch-screen machines. Eagler said the decision was based on the familiarity of ES&S' ballot layout.

Voters using the Votronic 2000 press the candidates' names and a red light goes on to indicate each choice. Once that process is complete, the voter presses a large red 'vote' button and the system's RAM card records the data. The system also records voting data on a cassette and can print on paper as well.

Poll workers using the Votronic 2000 tally votes by inserting the memory pack into a PC or send the data via modem to a courthouse PC. The system will not allow overvotes nor will it let voters cross party lines in primaries'a practice barred in New Jersey.

Passaic County officials used the first set of machines in a June primary and plan to implement the rest in 2002, said Rudy Filko, the county's elections superintendent.


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