Postcards from the front lines of election reform

Today at FOSE's E-Town, election officials described how two Maryland counties switched from lever-style systems and punch cards to direct record electronic (DRE) voting devices - and survived.

Brian Biggins, election system project manager for the Montgomery County Technology Services Department, said the county switched from a punch card system to touch-screen voting partly as a response to the 2000 election year debacle in Florida, and partly to comply with the Help America Vote Act of 2002, legislation that requires states to replace punch cards and lever machines with electronic voting equipment by November 2004, although extensions are possible.

The state is implementing a system that uses DREs from Diebold Election Systems, a division of Diebold Inc. of North Canton, Ohio. Four counties'Montgomery, Prince George's, Allegheny and Dorchester'used the new systems in the November election.

Touch-screen voting made access for people with disabilities easier, said Hugh Alexander, election system coordinator in the Prince George's County's Office of Information Technology and Communications. It also made working with multiple language ballots easier, but there were still problems, he said.

In Prince George's County, the Spanish-speaking population comes from many different countries, each of which has its own dialect, Alexander said. 'Coming up with a Spanish translation that was acceptable to each group was a challenge.'

Both panelists talked about staffing problems engendered by the new voting technology. In Prince George's County, nine technicians maintained the old lever-style machines, Alexander said. They were skilled with screwdrivers, but not necessarily computers, he said. 'But I'm very proud that we were able to hold onto seven of these people. They knew how to support voting technology.'

But Montgomery County lost 30 percent of their election judges since the county switched to DREs, Biggins said. The judges said the computer added too much stress to the job, he said.

The average age of an election judge in Montgomery County is 72; in Prince George's County, it's 68. The new machines are very heavy, so the judges needed help setting them up, which required additional staff.

'A 72-year-old lady might not know about computers,' Alexander said. 'But she knows how to run a polling place. So you have to give her support in the area where she needs it.'

Testing was important, because situations popped up that nobody anticipated, Alexander said. The LCD screens on the Diebold equipment had to be carefully placed where glare from a window wouldn't make the screen hard to read, Alexander said.

And who knew that Prince George's County had a problem with telephone jacks? When the county put the jacks down where students in the classroom could reach them, they would jab them with their pens until the pins inside were misshapen. The county installed the jacks four inches from the ceiling, where the students couldn't reach them. 'So we had to bring in extension cords for each jack we needed to reach,' Alexander said.

Alexander and Biggins agreed on three recommendations when complying with HAVA:

Manage expectations. People think because something is on a computer, it will give them immediate results. 'But accuracy is what counts in an election, not speed,' Alexander said.

Do everything possible to increase public awareness. 'You don't want people finding out there's a new voting system on election day,' Biggins said.

Use all the project management skills available.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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