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Familiar technology replaces touch screens for Nov. 2
By Daniel J. Chacón

October 5, 2004  
During the March primary, San Diego County introduced voters to a $31 million state-of-the-art electronic voting system with touch screens.

Computer encoders used to program voter cards in that high-tech voting system malfunctioned and brought up the wrong touch screen, causing more than one-third of the county's polling places to open late.

It also prompted Secretary of State Kevin Shelley to prohibit San Diego and three other California counties from using the touch-screen voting machines made by Diebold Election Systems Inc.

As a replacement, county election officials plan to use optical scanners, a considerably less technical voting system, for the Nov. 2 general election.

"This is not new technology," said Registrar of Voters Sally McPherson, who demonstrated the equipment to the news media yesterday – the first day to vote early.

With the optical-scan system, voters make their choices on paper and then scan the ballots electronically. The scanners were used in March to count absentee ballots, but they have never been used countywide.

"They've been used across the country for many, many years," McPherson said.

Although final outcomes were not affected, the county's optical-scan system miscounted more than 2,800 absentee ballots in March. It was unable to handle multiple scanners feeding a large number of ballots into the computer tabulation system at the same time. Officials at Diebold, which made the scanners, have assured the county that the glitch has been fixed.  
Diebold agreed to provide the county the optical scanners for free until November 2006 – the deadline Shelley imposed on counties using electronic voting machines to develop a system that leaves a paper trail.

The scanners are a temporary fix until the state certifies the touch screens, which McPherson expects to happen before June.

On Nov. 2, voters will be given a ballot that is 18 inches long, a pen with black or blue ink and a secrecy sleeve to place over the ballot.

The ballots require voters to fill in a bubble to mark their choices. Ballots with errors, such as an unfilled bubble or voting twice in the same race, will be rejected by the scanner, allowing voters to fix mistakes.

The voting booths are made of cardboard. The scanners, which look like small fax machines, are mounted on stands also made of cardboard.

"Generally, they've held up well," said Pete Russell, the registrar's research and development manager.

The county plans to have one scanner at each of the 1,629 polling places. McPherson said voters may have to wait to use a scanner during peak hours, usually when polls open at 7 a.m. and before they close at 8 p.m.

If a scanner breaks, trouble-shooters will be trained to fix them and will carry extras. Poll workers will continue accepting ballots, storing them in a box and counting them later. Any ballots with mistakes will go uncounted because the voter won't be there to recast it.

To vote for a write-in candidate, voters will have to fill in a bubble next to the blank line at the end of the list of candidates and then write the candidate's name.

San Diego Councilwoman Donna Frye is running as a write-in candidate in the mayor's race against incumbent Dick Murphy and county Supervisor Ron Roberts.

Final results for that race could take until Nov. 30 because ballots for write-in races must be counted manually, McPherson said.

"It's a manual process from start to finish," she said. "We will work as fast as we can, and we will give regular s frequently."

Mikel Haas, policy adviser to the county's chief administrative officer and the county's former registrar, said the county asked Shelley if the approved Diebold touch screens could be used by blind and disabled voters at the registrar's office. Shelley rejected the request, Haas said.

"We knew it was a stretch, but we asked anyway," he said. "We wanted to provide an alternative to those voters. It was a long shot, but our request was denied as inconsistent with (Shelley's) earlier directive."

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