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County to receive federal funds for touch-screen voting
Friday, June 18, 2004
By MATT SANDERS Statesman Staff Writer

The federal Election Assistance Commission announced earlier this week that the state of Missouri will be receiving a $45 million grant to overhaul its election operations.

Missouri is one of only 21 states to receive the money, which comes from $2.3 billion the bipartisan federal commission will be distributing this year. The money is being distributed as part of the Help America Vote Act, a piece of legislation well-known to election activists and officials.

The amount of money Stoddard County will receive is not known as of yet, but County Clerk Don White said he has some reservations about how the new regulations attached to the money will affect the county's voting system.

"We might end up having to close down some of our polling places," White said.

The reason: New regulations concerning voters with disabilities.

One of the provisions of the legislation is that each polling place be equipped for voters with disabilities. While this doesn't necessarily require touch-screen machines, according to many voting rights groups, the state has interpreted the law to mean touch-screen machines are required.

"It's a part of the law, and if we had to abide by it, it's going to be a lot of money spent," said White. "The county clerks will have to combine and close precincts. I cannot see how closing precincts is going to help America vote."

The machines are mired in controversy, as activists have brought up a myriad of problems they say plague the systems. Lisa Burks, leader of the Arkansas-based National Coalition for Verified Voting, said there are numerous security issues surrounding the machines.

"These machines are highly susceptible to hackers," said Burks. "Some of the machines are not hooked up to the Internet. However, the main vote tabulations, in many cases, are transmitted over the Internet via Windows operating systems."

The machines that aren't hooked up to the Internet can also be hacked into via wireless means, said Burks.

And the programming codes, she said, are proprietary codes created by the vendor, meaning election officials don't have access to them.

But Spence Jackson, communications director with Secretary of State Matt Blunt's office, said there are safeguards to prevent such things from happening.

"There's something called the Independent Testing Authority that has to certify and review all the machines nationally before they can be verified at the state levels," said Jackson. "A lot of companies are trying to tailor their machines to address those concerns and alleviate the fears a lot of voters have of electronic voting."

Jackson said Blunt has vowed to only certify machines that have a voter-verifiable paper audit trail, allowing voters to make sure they've made the correct vote and aiding recounts if needed. No machines have as of yet been certified through Blunt's office.

However, Burks said the audit trail may not be enough. If the machines are programmed incorrectly, many of them won't tabulate the vote correctly, even though the machine and its printout might show the voter that his or her intended vote was cast, she added.

These changes may not be felt immediately, thought, since the implementation of electronic voting machines isn't expected to be complete in Missouri until 2006.

Other money out of the $45 million will be used for less controversial means, like setting up a statewide database of eligible voters linked to state and local agencies.

"What that database will do is link, in real time, the Secretary of State's office, all 116 local election jurisdiction offices, as well as the state departments of health, revenue and corrections," said Jackson.

The database will alleviate problems seen in Missouri elections in 2000, such as convicted felons voting, duplicate registrations in multiple counties and registering in the names of the deceased.

Other money has also been used to re-train Stoddard County poll workers. A seminar was recently held at Jackson to help educate local workers on important election matters.

As of yet, nothing is set in stone, and White is unsure what will come of the new HAVA rules by the November election.

But he said that Stoddard County's current optical scan system works.

"We have probably got the best election system right now this county's ever had," said White.

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