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Touch-screen voting makes debut in Augusta County

By Joel Baird/staff    The NewsLeader   26 March 2005
Digital Glitches

Carteret County, N.C. lost more than 4,000 votes in November 2005 when their UniLect e-voting system ran out of memory. Instead of shutting down when it had reached capacity, the touch-screen machine continued to tell voters that their ballot was recorded. Will Doherty, the executive director of verifiedvoting.org, a non-profit voter awareness group, said that he believes all electronic voting machines need a "user-verified" paper ballot back-up that would be printed, examined by the voter, and then stored in a ballot box.

"That way," Doherty said, if the machine goes haywire ? and we know that all computers go haywire sometimes ? poll workers can reconstruct what happened, after the fact,"

Jack Gerbel, the president of Dublin, Ca.-based UniLect Corporation, said that the problems in Carteret County arose when a technician did not make a "one-keystroke" to a control console. The machine's LCD screen announced that it was "full," but polling workers failed to notice it. Augusta County's machines have a 10,000 voter capacity, Gerbel said, and will shut down when it reaches its maximum.

"UniLect makes a voter-verifiable print-out system," Gerbel added. "But it adds a lot to the total expense."

Gerbel said that money from the Help America Vote Act of 2002 would not cover the cost of equipment for single-voter printouts.

On the Web

UniLect Corp. voting systems: www.unilect.com

Augusta County Registrar: www.co.augusta.va.us (click on Departments, then Voter Registration)

Voting industry watch-dogs: www.verifiedvoting.org

Election Technology Council: www.electiontech.org 
 VERONA ?Video gamers, ATM users, and shoppers familiar with credit card check-out systems will have no trouble finding their way around Augusta County's new touch-screen voting machines, says Susan Miller, the county's general registrar.

To prove her point, Miller will have a UniLect "Patriot" demonstration model up and running Monday at the registrar's office in the Government Center. Her timing is uncanny: She hopes to both educate the public, and to relieve the tedium of those county residents she anticipates next door at the treasurer's office, lined up to beat the deadline for car decals.

"The procrastinators will be out there," she said. "We'll have a display set up, and the curb-side unit on our counter that people can actually use."

A full complement of the new machines will be in place for the November state elections, she said.

About the size of a road atlas (but 8 pounds heavier), the demonstrator is designed to be carried out to voters unable to walk into the polls, but can also fit snugly into a collapsible voting booth. Candidates' names appear in large characters, and familiar "stop" and "go" icons guide the novice through federal, state, and local election choices.

A decisive touch of the finger prompts an "X" next to a fictional candidate. Second thoughts? Another touch at the same spot undoes the vote.

"It even lets you do write-ins," said Chief Assistant Registrar Brandi Davis as a large keyboard-like screen appeared. "And it displays what you're typing at the top."

At the end of the test drive, voters can decide whether or not to support a dummy amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would exempt women from paying taxes.

"That's an easy one," Miller joked.

But Miller takes seriously the country's recently heightened concerns over accuracy in voting.

"These machines are computer-driven, but they're not compatible with other systems (in the county's computer network)," she said. "There's no Internet connection. And there's no wireless. We don't want to open them to any outside hacking."

Augusta County purchased the $350,000 system with federal funds from the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which enables jurisdictions to replace lever-style machines. The UniLect system includes a unit equipped with headphones and large knobs to make voting easier for the blind.

Each precinct will store votes in a central storage system that has 8-hour battery back-up in case of power failures. The same unit will print final vote tallies at the end of the election day.

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