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  Supervisors' meeting with Clark muddles local voting system plan



PASCAGOULA A Monday meeting with Mississippi Secretary of State Eric Clark about plans for a statewide voting system has forced Jackson County supervisors to take a closer look at problems with the county's aging ballot scanners.

That means a decision whether to accept a quote of more than $300,000 for new scanners has been placed on hold while county officials ponder how their decision to replace the county's 12-year-old machines fits into the state's plans.

The supervisors Monday afternoon appointed Supervisor Manly Barton to examine the county's situation and recommend how the board should proceed.

Clark and members of his staff met with the supervisors, Circuit Clerk Joe Martin, his chief deputy Jackie Fortner and county election commissioners Monday morning to discuss the state's plan to comply with the 2002 Helping America Vote Act.

The act, also known as HAVA, is aimed at reforming the election process in the United States in the wake of the problems surrounding the 2002 presidential elections.

Under the act, each state must develop and implement unified voter registration and voting plans.

While state officials say the voter registration plan is the most important of the two, the statewide voting system has received the most attention because of a proposal to use touch screen electronic voting devices.

Local election commissioners have been critical of the touch screen system, citing alleged problems with the system in Hinds County.

Election Commission Chairman Ben Sanford said the touch screen systems could be more expensive to operated in the long run because of maintenance costs related to the machines.

He said scanners have one advantage because election workers have the paper ballots to double-check the scanner's count if necessary.

Clark said Hinds and Rankin counties both use touch screen systems, adding that Hinds County's problems on Nov. 4 were not related to the machines. Rankin County had no problems, he added.

He said $15 million of an anticipated $34 million in federal funds to implement the state's voting program will be used to buy the new machines and distribute them to each of Mississippi's 82 counties. The goal, he said, is to buy the machines in bulk to get a lower price.

No decision has been made on the type of voting device the state would buy, Clark said, adding that his staff would develop a set of specifications before going out for bid.

He said after his meeting with the board that the machines should be in place by 2005, "but that depends on whether we get the money."

The appropriations bill, including the estimated $3.7 billion to implement HAVA, is currently in a congressional conference committee. But even if passed, Clark said, he is not sure that the state will get the full $34 million.

While the supervisors and county election commissioners agree something needs to be done about the machines before the state's March presidential primary, the supervisors appeared reluctant after meeting with Clark to buy new machines with the potential of possibly replacing them in two years.

"The unknown here is we don't know what the state will ultimately decide," Barton said following the meeting with Clark. "We could buy something the state chooses or buy something that the state does not buy."

The supervisors looked at two immediate solutions: buying refurbished machines to replace some of the scanners and to store as spares, or buying a portion of the new scanners.

"I don't know what the big rush is about," Supervisor John McKay. "We just went through a big election and it was handled very efficiently. We only had problems with three or four machines that we know of."

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