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Sec. State to meet supervisors



PASCAGOULA Mississippi Secretary of State Eric Clark will meet Monday with Jackson County supervisors. The topic is expected to be voting machines.

County Administrator Alan Sudduth said Friday that Clark is coming to Jackson County at the supervisors' request to answer questions about the state's plan to comply with the 2002 federal Helping America Vote Act.

But, considering the state plan's recommendation for a unified statewide voting system using a direct recording electronic voting device and the supervisors' decision in August to advertise for bids for a new ballot scanning system for the county, election machines are likely to be discussed as well.

Passed by Congress in response to the problems that occurred during the 2000 presidential election, the Help America Vote Act, also known as HAVA, is aimed at reforming the election process in the United States. Under the law each state must develop and implement a plan to improve the voting process.

The act authorizes federal funds for each state to aid in implementing the changes. Mississippi is expected to receive $34 million over three years, but has not yet received any money.

Lee Youngblood, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, said the funding for HAVA is currently in a conference committee and a vote is expected sometime next week.

Mississippi's 47-page plan includes 13 elements to reform the voting process in the state.

One of the more controversial elements in Jackson County is the voting systems standards requirement, which must be implemented by Jan. 1, 2006, and proposes using $15 million in federal funds to buy approximately 5,000 voting machines.

A May 22 letter from Clark urged the state's supervisors, clerks and election commissioners to delay buying new machines or other equipment and supplies until state officials find out how much federal money is available and how it will be distributed.

The letter also said the state might be able to get a better price on new machines by buying them in bulk.

One of the suggested machines was a computerized touch screen system, which is used in Hinds County and reportedly had several severe problems during recent elections. Blount said the touch screen system is one of several voting systems being reviewed, but said no decision has been made.

Board of Supervisors Vice President Tim Broussard said the decision to buy d versions of the county's current ballot scanning system was made on the recommendation of the county's election commissioners.

"We asked the election commissioners to look into it. They studied the issue and came back with the recommendation that we upgrade the machines we had," he said, adding the county has received a quote on the new machines which includes a buy-back on current scanners.

He said the county has held off approving the quote until officials were able to talk with Clark or his representative.

"We wanted to hear what information the secretary of state had," he said. "We received the letter, but felt we needed to get his side before making a decision."

Broussard said the initial decision to remain with the current system was based on several elements.

"Our election commissioners have been in office a long time and they are experts," he said. "They have an election coming next year. If any of them decide to step down or are not re-elected, we would have a new group come in that were not familiar with the office. We thought it would be good to stay with a familiar system."

The other reason was the supposed problems with the touch systems in Hinds County.

Hinds County Circuit Clerk Barbara Dunn said there were no major problems with the machines. Some of them overheated, she said, because the poll workers were not aware that they had to be turned off periodically. Once that was done, she said, the machines were soon back in operation.

"Any problems we had were corrected immediately," she said.

Another problem was the unusually long lines at the precincts, Dunn said. When people began leaving, she said, one precinct manager took the liberty to pass out paper ballots.

"This was only the fourth time we've used the touch screen machines, and we're going to have to educate our middle-aged and elderly voters who are not computer savvy how to use the machines," she said. "It's not a complicated computer. Once we've done that, it will get better."

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