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Hernando: Local officials voice strong support for current voting machines 
Rino Dolbi    The DeSoto Times    July 23, 2005 

HERNANDO ? Officials in DeSoto County are anxious to meet with Secretary of State Eric Clark to voice their strong opposition to a plan that calls for adopting touch screen voting machines in Mississippi.

A meeting had been set up for Friday but had to be canceled when a number of county officials said they were unavailable.
The U.S. Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) following the voting fiasco that occurred in Florida during the 2000 presidential election. Much of Florida?s problems resulted from punch card voting machines. DeSoto County was using the same machines then.
County officials, including Circuit Court Clerk Dale Kelly Thompson and the Election Commission, realized that the punch card system was doomed and began a search for a new machine. After a lengthy evaluation they agreed to purchase an optical scan system that reads a paper ballot that is marked by pencil.
The county purchased the Election Systems & Software Model 100 machine for each of its 35 precincts for $270,000.
Kelly, the election commissioners and the board of supervisors were told at the time they were considering the machine that it would meet federal requirements and would be eligible for federal funds through HAVA to offset the cost.
Earlier this month Clark awarded a state contract to Diebold Corp. to purchase 5,174 touch-screen machines for Mississippi?s 82 counties.
DeSoto County would receive 173 machines, a number which election officials say would be woefully inadequate and would cause long lines at the polls.
County Election Commission Chairman Paul Beale said the commission drafted a letter this month that was sent to Legislators, Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck and the board of Supervisors listing a number of questions about the Diebold system.
Beale said the Diebold system does not have a paper back up, will require double the maintenance as will the ES&S machines, and is much slower to use. He said the county will need at least 100 additional machines than the 173 allotted to avoid long lines and there are problems with counting absentee and affidavit ballots.
?We think the system we have is better than touch screen and it meets federal requirements,? he said.
Six or seven counties in Mississippi have already purchased the optical scan system and want to opt out of the plan to use touch screen. Those counties stand to be penalized financially if they do not accept Clark's plan.
Circuit Clerk Thompson said the county was careful to check with Clark?s office before buying the ES&S system and was told it met all of the federal requirements and was eligible for funding. Now, she said, Clark is backing away from that commitment.
?They said the system was good,? she said. ?And now they say they never had anything to do with it.?
Members of the Mississippi House of Representatives and Senate who represent DeSoto County say they are unhappy with Clark?s stance and want to see the ES&S system kept and paid for with federal dollars.
?I have concerns about the Diebold system,? said state Sen. Doug Davis. ?The circuit clerk, the election commission and the board of supervisors acted in good faith when they purchased this system.?
Davis said he believes the Diebold system may be more difficult to use by voters and he favors the optical scan unit.
?I am concerned about long lines,? he said. ?We do not need to make it a hindrance to vote. I think we have a great system now.?
Rep. John Mayo agreed that the ES&S units were good machines and he wants the county to receive federal dollars for them under HAVA.
?If it meets federal regulations, which it does, then there ought to be reimbursement,? he said.
Mayo said DeSoto County, like several others in the state, was well out in front of the rest of the state on replacing its punch card system.
Rep. Ted Mayhall, who was a county election commissioner who approved the ES&S machines, said they meet all of the requirements of HAVA and he believes Clark is wrong to insist on the touch screen system.
?We acted in good faith when we bought these machine,? he said. ?We did it to replace the punch-card system which was what HAVA was created for.?
?We have got a good system here now and we have heard no complaints about it.?
Sen. Terry Burton, who heads the Senate committee that oversees elections, said Jackson County on the Gulf Coast has also protested the plan.
?I have received calls from Circuit Court Clerks and election commissioners from all over the state,? he said. ?They are concerned that they are going to be penalized financially if they opt out of the plan as now proposed.?
Burton, who authored the state bill on funding the HAVA program in Mississippi, said it was never intended to insist that individual counties purchase a system designated by the Secretary of State?s office.
?If they opt out, and have a good system that meets federal regulations, then they should receive the same amount of funding as those counties that are in the system,? he said.
Burton said Clark seems to be insisting that touch screen machines are the only option and ?that makes no sense.?
Burton said he plans to meet with Clark on Aug. 1 to discuss the problem. Counties must decide by Aug. 15 if they will use the touch screen machines or opt out of the program.
Jay Eads, who is coordinating the HAVA program for Clark?s office, said they are working to set up a meeting with DeSoto County officials to discuss the plan.

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