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Old-fashioned voting here to stay awhile
July 26,2004

Computerized ballots may be the future of voting, but for Onslow County voters, that future may be a ways off.

Though 43 of North Carolina's 100 counties have switched from punch card and lever balloting to direct-record electronic (DRE), or computerized voting, systems, Onslow has not made the change mostly for financial reasons.

However, a deadline to switch is looming, as the Help America Vote Act has mandated that each precinct be equipped with a DRE by Jan. 1, 2006. Onslow County could be pushing that deadline as it waits for funds to become available.

"The present Board of Commissioners told me a while back that there are not funds earmarked for (DREs) by the county," said Rose Whitehurst, director of the Onslow County Board of Elections. "The HAVA says that we must have it, and we're waiting to see if the state puts more money in the pot to help offset the cost, so we can use less local tax dollars."

Purchasing, installing and implementing the machines would cost the county about $1 million, Whitehurst said. Each DRE machine costs between $3,000 and $6,000.

DREs, which digitally record votes, will make elections more efficient, said Gary Bartlett, executive director of the state election board. Punch-card systems, like the one Onslow County has, use optical scanning to read and record ballots. With that technology becoming increasingly obsolete, it is more prone to error, Bartlett said.

"It seems like every jurisdiction that has purchased (DREs) loves them," Bartlett said. "The optical scan is old technology, and there are more issues with it, like not following ballot instructions, residual votes and a host of other issues."

Some people have raised concerns over the reliability of DREs, saying they are vulnerable to hacking and malfunctioning. Some voters decry the lack of a paper trail that physically shows their votes.

However, Bartlett downplayed such concerns, attributing most of the problems associated with DREs to human error.

"There has never been any equipment, whether it's punch cards or computers, that has not had a problem at some time," Bartlett said. "We have not had any problems that have impacted an election. Every now and then, something will happen, and you just have to have a service technician available."

Onslow County has already received about $70,000 in federal and state funds from HAVA, said Johnnie McLean, deputy director of the state election board. Federal funds are distributed to each state, which then determines how much each county receives.

North Carolina will receive about $66 million once the funds are completely distributed, Bartlett said. About $11 million is being held up while the Elections Assistance Commission finalizes accessible voting equipment standards.

A first draft of those standards is expected in April 2005, and the funds should be available by the end of the year, Bartlett said.

The HAVA actually doesn't directly mandate DREs; rather, there is a requirement for each precinct to have at least one voting machine that is handicapped accessible.

Since DREs are the only equipment that currently allows visually impaired voters to vote privately and without assistance, the HAVA has, in effect, made DREs mandatory, McLean said.

Carteret County has used DREs since 1996. The system allows voters to candidates using touch screens. The computers make tabulating results much more efficient, said Patsy Hardesty, director of the Carteret County Board of Elections.

For the Tuesday primary with few races and a low turnout, Carteret County announced its results shortly after 8 p.m., about half an hour after polls closed at 7:30 p.m. Onslow County results weren't announced until shortly before 11 p.m.

"When you had to run the cards through a little counter, it'd take you four or five hours," Hardesty said. "Now, they transmit the totals from the polling place. If we have a good night, we probably have the results in 45 minutes.

"Most voters seem to like it. It's very simple to use, it's quick, and it's made my job a lot easier."

Hardesty said Carteret County spent about $400,000 on the computerized equipment purchased from the UniLect Corporation of California.

Onslow County did use DREs in the 2001 general election as a trial run, and by most accounts, the computerized system was a hit. However, county officials ped the matter until they received more funding.

"The machines were received very well" in 2001, Whitehurst said. "Everyone who voted on them seemed to love it. People adapted to them really well. In fact, they said they missed standing in the booths looking at the ballots for long periods of time.

"But the county said, 'Let's just hold off and see what type of money comes in.'"

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