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Schuylkill considers scanning votes
Electronic system would spot some errors on paper ballots.

By Bob Laylo    The Morning Call    15 September 2005

Schuylkill County would continue to use paper ballots under a plan the county commissioners are considering, officials said Wednesday.

But the county would use optical scanners, into which voters would feed their ballots at their precincts, to comply with the federal Help America Vote Act passed in the wake of voting problems in Florida in the 2000 presidential election. The act requires districts to use electronic voting machines instead of punch card or lever machines.

Commissioner Mantura Gallagher said the scanners, which are known as precinct counters, would tell people if they overvoted or undervoted and let them fix mistakes.

''The overvote is the big thing,'' county Election Director Betty Dries said. ''You only vote for two commissioners, but three are elected. A lot of times people vote for three.''

She said such mistakes invalidate all of a ballot's votes for commissioner.

Gallagher said the scanner also would let voters know their ballots had been cast.

''You get immediate gratification,'' she said.

Schuylkill voters now put paper ballots in a box, and they are counted by county officials on election night in St. Clair. The process usually runs into the wee hours of the morning.

Dries said the count would be quicker with the scanners because the precinct counters would have an immediate tally. All election officials would have to do is combine the counts from the 167 precincts.

Dries said the county also would have to buy machines that accommodate the deaf and blind and have them available at each precinct.

Gallagher and Dries said the county has yet to decide which machine to buy.

''It's not a done deal,'' Gallagher said.

Some counties, such as Carbon, are considering buying touch-screen machines. But Gallagher said there are questions about how long the touch-screen machines would last and how many the county would have to buy.

She said larger precincts would need more than one touch-screen machine.

Schuylkill and other counties are waiting to hear from Pennsylvania's State Department about which type of systems they can buy. The department, which oversees elections, so far has approved only one system.

Meanwhile, Dries said vendors are lining up to demonstrate their systems. She said she and the commissioners have looked at systems during conferences, but because so many people and vendors attend them, it's difficult to see what they do.

''You just can't see all the bells and whistles,'' she said.

The voting act provided $3.2 billion from the federal government to improve voters' access and ballot accuracy across the country. Pennsylvania got $53 million to share among its 66 counties.

Schuylkill expects to get $8,000 for each of its 167 precincts, or about $1.4 million, Gallagher said.

Dries said she does not know how much the systems would cost. She said the state's Department of General Services will take bids and counties will buy from it.

''They are trying to get the best price for the county whether you need one or you need 300,'' she said.

Dries said the county plans to begin buying the new system by the end of December. The law requires them to be in place in time for the May elections.

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