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More touch screens on the way

Johnson County buys 1,305 machines

By MELODEE HALL BLOBAUM The Kansas City Star  04 October 2004

Johnson County is expanding its inventory of touch-screen voting machines as questions about the machines continue to be raised elsewhere in the nation.

The county is trading in all 860 of the touch-screen machines that voters have used since 2002 for 1,305 upgraded models, said Connie Schmidt, election commissioner.

The $1.6 million purchase allows the county to place extra machines at precincts where voter turnout is expected to be the highest, in an effort to reduce waiting times on Election Day.

“With the bistate question being so lengthy, voters could be in the booth longer,” Schmidt said. “With more machines at the busiest polling places, we hope to keep the lines down.”

At issue nationwide is whether to require a paper trail should a re-count become necessary. Critics think electronic voting devices could be vulnerable to hackers, software bugs and hardware failures and say a paper backup is needed in case something goes wrong.

Schmidt said her office has a paper audit trail and security measures in place that protect the integrity of electronically cast ballots.

Most efforts seeking a paper copy of ballots look to the 2006 elections.

Last week, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law requiring that all electronic voting machines in his state produce paper records of every ballot cast, beginning in 2006. The records would be placed in locked boxes at polling places in case a re-count became necessary.

Also last week, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revived a lawsuit by Florida Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler, who is demanding that all touch-screen voting machines in Florida produce a paper record of every ballot cast.

A three-judge appellate panel told a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to reopen the case, which could affect 15 counties where electronic voting terminals do not issue paper records.

Schmidt said Johnson County's machines store an electronic image of each ballot cast, and the images can be printed individually using letter-size paper and a laser printer if a re-count is needed. The county has conducted one such re-count, she said.

Other security measures protect the Johnson County system. The election system is not connected with other computers or the Internet, and is stored in a locked room monitored by a security camera.

Results from individual voting terminals are stored on cartridges and hand-delivered to the election office, reducing the possibility of tampering, Schmidt said.

In Kansas, only Johnson County uses touch-screen voting machines. Two other counties — Butler and Sedgwick — use pressure-sensitive, push-button electronic machines.

Most counties, including Douglas, Leavenworth, Miami and Wyandotte, use optical scan paper ballots; 21 use hand-counted paper ballots.

Johnson County voters have been casting ballots on electronic machines since 1988, when the county became one of the first in the nation to use electronic machines. Pressure-sensitive, push-button machines were used until 2002, when touch-screen machines were introduced.

Schmidt said she is training election workers to operate the upgraded machines that will be used in November. They operate the same as older models but allow voters to magnify ballots at the start of the voting process and to turn off the color if they wish.

Both features make the machines friendlier to voters with visual impairments, Schmidt said.

Electronic voting has not arrived in Missouri, where ballots are cast on punch cards or paper, and counted by optical scan or manually. Platte, Clay and Cass counties use optical scan ballots; Jackson County and Kansas City use the punch card system.

However, Jackson County and Kansas City are receiving federal money to replace their punch cards with an electronic system under the Help America Vote Act.

Sharon Turner Buie, the Democratic director for the Kansas City Election Commission, said Missouri Secretary of State Matt Blunt must certify electronic voting machines before election agencies can purchase such systems.

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