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Utah voters cling to punch cards:
Cost of machines, chance of glitches are major concerns

Deseret Morning News, by Alan Edwards. April 24, 2004.

When it comes to the technology of voting, Utah is being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century ? joining other states that are throwing their own tantrums.

At first glance, voting for your favorite candidate via computer might seem pretty neat ? pull up a screen of candidates, touch the name of your favorite and you're done, with no tedious mucking about with styluses and cards and chads and such. But, looking at the experience of other states, Utah officials in charge of converting the state's punch card systems to electronic ATM-type machines see huge problems ? and huge expenses.

"I think it's a tragic mistake," Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said of the timetable for switching over. "Why are we rushing into this?"

States that have conducted elections on the new machines have already experienced a variety of problems, and a growing number of federal and state legislators are expressing doubts about the integrity of the machines.

An estimated 55 million Americans will use the new machines to cast their ballots in November.

Congress mandated that states switch to electronic voting systems by the 2006 election in the wake of the Bush/Gore Florida election debacle. Voicing an opinion shared by several of his opponents, Utah gubernatorial candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. called it a "knee-jerk reaction," a partially unfunded mandate that may cause more problems than it solves.

On Thursday, a California panel unanimously recommended banning a popular Diebold Election Systems touchscreen voting machine. California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley said Diebold glitches "jeopardized the outcome" of the state's March 2 primary, and the head of a newly created federal agency charged with overseeing electronic voting called Diebold's problems "deeply troubling."

Dozens of protesters demonstrated Thursday at Diebold's annual shareholder meeting in North Canton, Ohio, many sporting T-shirts that read, "The Computer Ate My Vote."

Computer scientists say paperless systems made by Diebold's competitors also expose elections to malicious attack, software glitches and mechanical errors that could or alter millions of ballots.

Indiana discovered problems this week with equipment made by Election Systems & Software, which apparently installed uncertified software in five counties without notifying the state's election commission. In presidential primaries last month, modem problems delayed vote counts in Maryland, and a power surge made the wrong screens appear on at least half of San Diego County's touchscreens, preventing an unknown number of voters from casting ballots.

In speaking to a gathering of county commissioners from across the state at Ogden's Eccles Conference Center Friday, Lt. Gov. Gayle McKeachnie, whose office is leading the charge, noted the problems and said he's proceeding cautiously.

"We're rushing along like a herd of turtles," he said. "It's not a mad dash."

But a Utah ion committee charged with choosing the type of voting machine to be used here began meeting only a few months ago, and at one point was given an early May deadline to release a request for proposals from manufacturers. Amy Naccarato, state elections officer, anticipates a decision on the type of machine to be used by next fall.

That's too soon, Swensen said. A Georgia ion committee took a full year to do the same thing. Many Utah committee members "haven't even seen the machines yet. . . . We should wait until after the November election to see how things go with the states that are using them. We'll still have plenty of time" to get things in place by 2006.

County commissioners responding to McKeachnie's remarks expressed concerns about the millions of dollars required to make the switch. The federal government is providing about $25 million for Utah (billions nationwide) to switch to the new system, but even that won't be enough to cover costs. Commissioners worried about the fact that the machines become obsolete in eight to 10 years and will need to be replaced ? this time with no federal financial help. Replacement will likely cost less, but still run into the millions.

Counties will be on their own to foot the bill next go-round, McKeachnie said.

Several county officials are beginning to wonder out loud why Utah is doing this in the first place, since punch-card systems have been uniformly reliable here. Swensen said Florida's problems could have been avoided simply by cleaning out the chad receptacles, a routine maintenance item.

Utah can opt out of the program, though in doing so would give up several million in federal dollars and still have to comply with new regulations, including installing a handicapped-accessible machine in each polling place. What's more, Naccarato said, punch cards for the old-fashioned voting machines soon may not be available.

"There are a lot of reasons for keeping (the punch-card system), but it may not be cost-effective or even possible in the future," she said.

"It seems a foregone conclusion," Davis County Commissioner Dannie McConkie said. "It's just plain going to happen, folks."

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