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County officials wrangle over voting methods
Some worry about human, machine errors and costs

By Pam Tharp   Palladium-Item   30 November 2004

LIBERTY, Ind. Union County officials thought waiting until after the election to buy new election equipment would make the decisions easier.

On Monday, officials learned a lot of pitfalls still exist in buying a new way to cast ballots.

Paper ballots are still attractive here, but not the kind that are scanned by optical readers. Some Union County officials think a return to hand-counted paper ballots might be the simplest and lowest-cost system for a county with only 5,000 registered voters. Other officials say returning to paper ballots would be a step backward.

"The labor needed to count them, and they're open to human error," Commissioner Gary Davis said. "Paper ballots are not an option, in my opinion."

Commissioner Allen Paddock disagreed, saying paper ballots should be considered as well as the other systems.

The commissioners made no decisions Monday except to agree they want more quotes on voting equipment. A quote from Fidlar Election Co. won't be made public until others are received.

Councilman Russel Rude said optical scanners are expensive counters that require a yearly cost for reprogramming in three of four years. Poll workers could be better paid to count the ballots and the county would save money, he said.

The programming error in Franklin County by Fidlar Election Co. also was a concern for officials. Rude asked how voters can be sure the program is correct. He's concerned deliberate errors might be written into programs that might not be active until election day, so pre-testing wouldn't catch them.

"The mistake (in Franklin County) was caught because it was obvious. What if only 2 percent of the votes had been shifted? It wouldn't have been caught," Rude said.

County Clerk Pat Hensley, who oversees elections, said as long as humans are involved, errors can be made.

"If we counted by hand you'd have errors," Hensley said.

The commissioners and some county council members saw a complete demonstration of Fidlar Election Co.'s optical scan equipment. Optical scanners fulfill the Help America Vote Act's first requirement to eliminate punch card voting but don't address accessibility for blind voters, Fidlar account manager Dana Pittman said.

The county also would need to buy a touch-screen machine for each precinct for blind voters. The machine has a raised key pad and headphones. Each candidate's name is read by the machine to the voter and the voter punches the number of the candidate for whom they want to vote, Pittman said.

The accessibility rules required by the Help America Vote Act don't make economic sense in small counties, Council President Pat Gentry said.

"We have a traveling board that will go to their home. We have an absentee board. We don't need this. To me it's ridiculous," Gentry said.

Some counties skipped the optical scan method and bought enough touch-screen machines for all voters. Touch-screen machines approved by the state election commission don't have a paper backup for recounts, Pittman said.

Touch screens are more expensive because at least two are needed per precinct, where only one optical scanner is needed per polling place, Pittman said.

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