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State moves on voting upgrades

By JOAN BARRON    Casper Star-Tribune     September 15, 2005

CHEYENNE During the 2000 general election in Hanna, an unusually large number of voters turned out for the lively and contentious mayoral election.

The longtime election judges, who knew virtually everyone in the small Carbon County community, noticed some new faces among the voters.

Hanna Mayor I.W. "Bill" Coffman, a five-term incumbent, lost the election to Ken Worman by 11 votes in a recount 234 to 223.

After the election, Coffman claimed that some voters came from outside the area and were felons who cast ballots under Wyoming law.

It was one of Carbon County Clerk Linda Smith's first elections.

"It was unusual, and I was like, 'Oh, no,'" Smith said this week.

She referred the complaint to the Carbon County attorney's office. Two years later, seven people were charged with voter fraud.

"I've never found any case where people intended to commit voting fraud," including the people charged in the 2000 Hanna election, Smith said Tuesday.

Some other states, she noted, allow felons to vote, and some of the people charged had been voting in other states for years.The answer to this problem, she said, is voter education.

Smith was in Cheyenne this week to help test the state's new voter registration system, one of the improvements required by the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Congress passed the law as a result of the disputed results and claims of fraud surrounding the 2000 presidential election in Florida.

"It gives us a chance to upgrade our system and all our voting equipment," she said of the federal program.

Park County Clerk Karen Carter, who also was in the testing group in Cheyenne, said she, too, supports the program.

"We're excited about it. We think it's going to be a good thing," Carter said.

Unlike larger states where dead people and even pets have been found registered to vote or where eligible voters were wrongly purged from the rolls, Wyoming has been remarkably free of serious election irregularities.

The vast distrust of voting systems in other states doesn't exist in Wyoming, said Secretary of State Joe Meyer, the state's chief elections officer.

The state's system of same-day voter registration helps to cement trust in that system, he added.

"We never had any significant voter fraud," Meyer said. The only case he could recall was the Hanna mayoral election in 2000.

Nevertheless, Wyoming was included with the other 49 states in the federal law and is supposed to get the minimum grant of $20 million from the government to pay for the new system.

So far the state has received $16.5 million in federal dollars in addition to $750,000 in matching state money.

Of that total, $8.8 million is contracted for the new state-controlled voter registration system which ties in the Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Division, the Division of Criminal Investigation, the vital records section in the Department of Health, the Department of Corrections and the Board of Parole.

Under the Help America Vote Act, the deadline for states to finish developing their new voter registration system is Jan. 1, 2006.

Meyer isn't sure the state can meet that deadline but pointed out states including New York and California have yet to even start developing their systems.

The new system will be in place for the 2006 elections, however.

New ways of voting

Wyoming may wind up with the most sophisticated election system in the nation as a result of the Help America Vote Act of 2002, Secretary of State Joe Meyer said.

During the next 30 days, his agency will have bought voting systems for every polling place in the state. Each polling place will have a touch screen unit for disabled people to use.

Although the voter registration system is top down controlled by the state the counties were allowed to choose the voting equipment they preferred.

As a result, 20 counties will have the AutoMark system, which is a combination of an optical scanner and a touch screen, Deputy Secretary of State Pat Arp said.

Carbon and Laramie counties will continue to have optical scanning systems, joined by Goshen County.

Five counties will get rid of their punch-card ballots, while three counties will say good-bye to their old lever-type voting machines.

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