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Utah County to look for lower-cost voting option

Amie Rose     Provo DAILY HERALD    25 April 2005


Utah County commissioners are trying to find a way to comply with federal law without spending millions on new voting machines.

"I'm a cheapskate," said Utah County Commissioner Jerry Grover.

Tuesday, commissioners will discuss possible alternatives to direct-recording electronic voting and optical scan machines being considered as punchcard machine replacements by the

Grover said he needs to make sure the county is acting in the voters' and taxpayers' best interest, instead of blindly replacing all the machines.

The state is set to a voting system from four machines optical scan and the ATM-like electronic systems offered by two companies, Diebold and Election Systems & Software. The state's Election Equipment Selection Committee held its last public hearing on the machines Thursday after publicly demonstrating them in March. It will have a recommendation in a month or two, and Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert will make a decision on the recommendation shortly after.

Utah election officials set a plan in 2003 for election reform to comply with the federal Help America Vote Act a reaction to voting problems in Florida in 2000. The plan is to replace all punchcard voting machines in the state by 2006, but Grover isn't sure the county needs to follow the state plan to comply with the federal law.

HAVA states "the voting system shall . . . be accessible for individuals with disabilities, including nonvisual accessibility for the blind and visually impaired, in a manner that provides the same opportunity for access and participation (including privacy and independence) as for other voters."

"If Utah County says 'No, we're not going to do it,' then they can do their own system as long as it complies with HAVA," Herbert said.

There could be a way to modify punchcard machines to comply with the law; the county could only replace some punchcard machines; or it might just have to replace everything, Grover said.

The federal government is only providing the state $20.5 million to replace the machines and the final cost will be $25 million or more. Counties will end up shouldering the difference, a cost that may be too much.

"They don't have the ability to pay," said Brent Gardner, executive director of the Utah Association of Counties. "Counties only raise revenue in a limited number of ways."

Unless the state Legislature can provide some additional funding, it's going to be a big problem, he said. Also, counties will have to look ahead at replacement costs 10 years from now, which could be as high as $50 million.

Under accounting rules, counties will have to estimate the replacement costs of the electronic machines and start putting money aside every year, Grover said.

The punchcard machines are much less expensive to replace, he said.

"Our voting machines cost 100 bucks a unit, or whatever, and will last 40 years if you take care of them," Grover said.

But in the electronics world there are constant upgrades and parts that need to be replaced, he said.

Counties will also need to have extra machines in case one breaks down on election day, Herbert said.

And counties will also end up spending more on maintenance and storage for the electronic machines, Grover said.

Also, he's worried about the problems that could come with electronic machines if there's a power failure and how people who don't know how to use or who are intimidated by them will react to new voting machines.

The only two problems Utah County has had with elections were software-related glitches, Grover said.

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