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Voting systems vary by county

By DAN HAUGEN, Waterloo Courier Staff Writer  03 October 2004

INDEPENDENCE - Hundreds of thousands of Iowans will head to polling stations Nov. 2. Whether they push a button, fill in an oval or scratch a line will depend on the county in which they vote.

Because counties - not the state or federal government - are in charge of running elections, the type of technology used to track votes varies across Iowa. Much of the equipment will be replaced in coming years to comply with a new federal law designed to make voting more accurate and accessible.

About three-quarters of Iowa's counties, including Buchanan, use optical scan systems. Voters mark ions on a paper ballot, which is fed through a scanner and read by electronic eyes.

 Buchanan County Auditor Cindy Witt said the optical scan machine is accurate and leaves a paper record for every ballot cast.

"I strongly feel staying with a paper ballot is important," Witt said.

Before each election, Witt runs about 50 test ballots through the machine. Representatives from each major political party observe the test and sign off on the machine's use if results match their own count.

Buchanan County has used its American Information Systems scan machine since 1991 with no significant problems, Witt said. However, the county is one of several that will need to replace its equipment before 2006.

Federal legislation passed after the debacle in the 2000 presidential election provides funds to states that move toward machines that count votes at each precinct instead of at county courthouses.

Black Hawk County already has the precinct count technology. Voters still fill out a similar optical scan form. But instead of having ballots carried to the courthouse at the end of the night, poll officials scan and count them on the spot.

The advantage is if voters make a mistake - for example, accidentally voting for two presidential candidates - the machine spits the ballot out while the person is still there. The voter could then fix the error or get a replacement ballot.

"The error rates are very low because of that," Secretary of State Chet Culver said.

The state plans to spend $16 million over the next two years helping counties upgrade voting equipment where needed.

Delaware County already bought new machines with help from the state. The old lever system used by it and five other counties until this fall were outlawed by Congress as part of the Help America Vote Act. The machines have been replaced by precinct-count optical scan machines leased from Elections Systems & Software.

Other counties with optical scan machines at each precinct include Benton, Butler, Grundy and Tama.

Fayette County is one of about a dozen Iowa counties that has computerized voting. Voters there never touch a pencil or paper. Instead, they cast votes by pressing lighted buttons next to a list of candidates' names. A small electronic cartridge saves votes, and at the end of the night those are delivered to the courthouse where a central computer tallies results.

Fayette County Auditor Larry Popenhagen said the machines, which the county purchased in 1996, have proven fast and accurate. It typically takes less than an hour after polls close to declare officials results. Also, in the event of a discrepancy, each polling booth keeps a detailed paper receipt of every vote.

"There's really no way for a voter to spoil their ballot," Popenhagen said.

Still, he's expects the county will have to replace the machines in the next two years anyway because of federal requirements that mandate all machines must be functional for sight-impaired voters.

Culver said Iowa is ahead of the curve when it comes to election technology. And by 2006, he expects the state will be an example for the nation.

"I'm excited about these changes," he said. "It entails a lot of hard work, but we're up to the job."

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