Sunday, October 31, 2004
One-third of Virginia localities touch screens
Voters in 46 of 134 state municipalities use electronic method this presidential election
The latest from our Blue Ridge Caucus politics blog
From The Roanoke Times
A man walked into Roanoke's Highland #2 precinct in May and purposely dislodged part of an electronic voting machine to shut it down and prove its vulnerability.
The man was not prosecuted because the machines were only on display for demonstration. But touch-screen machines will be used for the first time in Roanoke during the presidential election Tuesday, and the Highland precinct situation underscores the attention being paid to potential voting problems this year locally, statewide and nationally. Voters in six other localities across the Roanoke and New River valleys will be using touch-screen machines as well.
Roanoke registrar Beryl Brooks, her staff and the city Electoral Board spent months selecting a company to handle the city's $600,000 conversion to electronic touch-screen voting.
That company, Election Systems & Software, has been a constant presence in Roanoke since the spring, and it was prepared for its machines to be used in the May election. However, after last-minute questions by city council members and others, Brooks and the Electoral Board decided to hold off on using the new machines until now.
Brooks is confident the machines will perform well. ES&S has revised the 125 voting computers to be used in Roanoke, and the part that was dislodged by the voter in May has been better secured on all of them.
ES&S is one of the largest of several companies providing electronic voting services across the country. Gary Greenhalgh, ES&S' project manager in Roanoke, said the company's machines will handle 50 million ballots Tuesday.
The machines have already been battle tested, he said. They've been used for early voting in several states, including West Virginia, Greenhalgh said.
In Radford, voter registrar Tracy Howard has been hauling one of the city's new electronic voting machines to senior citizen centers, the public library, candidate forums and civic clubs to help familiarize citizens with the new machines before Tuesday.
"I've taken this thing all over town," said Howard, referring to the Sequoia Voting Systems machine. "I've rarely had a free evening."
Howard said he normally encounters "natural skepticism" from people examining the machine for the first time. But people are pleasantly surprised to learn how easy the machines are to use, he said.
While Roanoke and several other neighboring localities will employ electronic voting for the first time, others in the region have been using computers without any major glitches for at least one previous election, including Roanoke County.
Forty-six of Virginia's 134 localities will be using touch screens on Tuesday, and 23 of those have already used touch screens in more than one election, according to Jean Jensen, secretary of the State Board of Elections.
Three different types of touch-screen machines are being used in the Roanoke and New River valleys: The ES&S iVotronic; Advance Voting Solutions' WINvote; and Sequoia Voting System's AVC Edge. None will produce backup paper receipts for individual votes.
This Tuesday will be the fourth time some voters in Pulaski County will have used iVotronic machines. County registrar Kathy Webb said she has no complaints about the 1-year-old system.
"After every election, we get calls with nothing but positive comments," Webb said.
The machines differ marginally in size, text and ballot form, but they all work generally the same way. Voters will simply touch prompts on a computer screen to cast their ballots. The machines then provide each voter an electronic copy of his or her individualized ballot for review - also known as a "final screen." A voter must then push a designated button to send the ballot into the computer's database. Once a voter pushes that button, though, the ballot is cast - no ifs, ands or buts.
"That I can be sure of," Brooks said.
Electronic voting has spread nationally since the 2000 presidential election in which voting problems, particularly in Florida, called the country's mishmash of voting methods into question. The Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress in 2002, provides federal money for localities to replace systems such as punch-card ballots and old lever machines with newer technology by 2006.
But computer voting has touched off a major debate of its own. Its critics have warned of potential software and hardware malfunctions as well as the lack of individualized paper receipts to provide a safeguard against such potential flaws. Jensen said only Nevada has approved a touch-screen machine with a paper trail tied to individual ballots that voters can review, and election boards across the country are waiting to see how that turns out.
In Roanoke, ES&S officials point out that the lever machines used for decades didn't provide paper receipts either. And the company adds that its iVotronic machines are equipped to print a synopsis of votes in each precinct by time and result. The printout does not include any information to identify individual voters, ES&S officials said.
New voting systems are but one of several new issues Brooks and other election officials locally and elsewhere are dealing with this year, including the potential presence of partisan lawyers and uniformed police officers at polling places, and an unprecedented jump in voter registrations.
About 4.5 million voters will be on Virginia's rolls for this year's election, an increase of more than 400,000, or 11 percent, over the 2000 presidential race, according to an Associated Press story last week.
Earlier this month during the early voting period in Morgantown, W.Va., ES&S' Greenhalgh said 200 people were waiting in line for the polls to open, some before dawn. "It really was amazing," he said.
Howard, Radford's registrar, said he expects some delays Tuesday, but not because citizens are unaccustomed to the machines.
Instead, Howard said he expects lines to back up as many voters read perhaps for the first time two constitutional amendments on the ballot: one to extend the line of gubernatorial succession, the other clarifying that political boundaries changed during redistricting will not take effect until the general election held at the conclusion of a current lawmaker's term.
Staff writer Kevin Miller contributed to this report.The Roanoke Times