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Voting machines chop off candidates' names
Computer glitch affects eSlate machines used in Travis, Hays counties; error cannot be fixed by Nov. 7.
By Tara Copp, Corrie MacLaggan; AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Thursday, October 26, 2006

WASHINGTON It's conventional wisdom in politics that it's good to have a short, simple last name to build identification with voters.

Seems Austin's electronic voting machines think so, too.

As voters review their ballots, they may be surprised to see that the Hart InterCivic Inc. eSlate voting machines chop off candidate names longer than about 15 letters. So Kinky Friedman becomes "Richard 'Kinky' F." Carole Keeton Strayhorn: "Carole Keeton St."

And Texas' senior senator? Just call her "Kay Bailey Hutch."

The problem is not new, but it won't be fixed before the Nov. 7 election, either. Both Hart InterCivic and local officials stress that every candidate's name appears correctly on the voting screen. The glitch occurs on only the last screen, when voters are given the option to see a summary of their choices and double-check their ballot. The votes are not affected and still count, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said.

"Absolutely your vote still counts," she said.

But it does require additional voter diligence in an already complicated special election. For instance, if voters want to double-check that they've picked the Republican or Democrat of their choice, it won't be obvious from the summary screen. A voter would have to know that "William E. 'Bill' " is Democrat Bill Moody, a Supreme Court Place 2 candidate. The summary screen doesn't list party affiliation.

Republican or Democrat won't appear, DeBeauvoir said. "It really does go by name ID. A voter would have to go back to the ballot to read the whole name and party identification."

The cutoff of names is frustrating for election officials, DeBeauvoir said.

"I don't like it. We've been asking the vendor to address this issue for a couple of years now," she said.

The names are cut off because of the size of the letters onscreen, which "causes longer names to truncate," Hart InterCivic Vice President Phillip Braithwaite said.

That's a good thing for gubernatorial contenders Chris Bell and Rick Perry, who both have nine-letter names. They stay on the screen intact. It's not so good for Democratic U.S. Senate challenger Barbara Ann Radnofsky; to the screen she's known as "Barbara Ann Ra."

Kinky Friedman's campaign said he was not aware of the situation because he voted by paper ballot, rather than electronic ballot, in Kerrville. But campaign spokeswoman Laura Stromberg said, "We don't expect it to make a difference. Everyone knows him as Kinky."

A spokesman for Strayhorn said that "Carole Keeton St" could actually help the campaign in Austin, where voters are familiar with Dean Keeton Street, the road near the University of Texas campus named for Strayhorn's late father. "It's Dean Keeton looking down and helping his daughter one more time," campaign spokesman Mark Sanders said.

Hart introduced its eSlate electronic voting machine in 2000. It's used by about 100 Texas counties and in other states. Travis County began using the eSlate machines in 2002 and has a $5 million contract with Hart; Hays County signed an $800,000 contract with the company in 2004.

Since then, the machines have continued to have difficulty putting a candidate's whole name on the screen during the ballot review.

For example, in the heated Virginia Senate race between Republican Sen. George Allen and Democratic challenger James H. "Jim" Webb, the machines Webb's name to just "James H. 'Jim' " on the review screen, The Washington Post reported.

Local election officials said the screen has cut off names in previous cycles but it hasn't been an issue with voters.

Joyce Cowan, Hays County elections administrator, said the county has received few complaints about the issue.

Ashley Burton, a spokeswoman for the Texas secretary of state's office, said that each county had been given the option to reduce the font size on the screen, so the whole name appears, but that it might make it harder for voters to read. Because Travis and Hays counties use an older version of the eSlate machine, that's not an option. Williamson, Bastrop and Caldwell counties use a different electronic voting machine company.

In the Webb-Allen race, City of Alexandria, Va., elections administrator Eric Spicer said they have been aware of the name problem since 2004, when Alexandria first acquired its machines, and "brought it to attention of Hart and the state board of elections." The city, too, is waiting for an upgrade that won't bump off candidates' names.

A spokesman for Hart said the company plans to have all the versions fixed by 2007.

The ped names add to the mix of redistricting and special election concerns that already make this November's vote more complicated than normal. Because of redistricting, residents in Austin's 21st and 25th districts who wish to vote straight party ticket must also check a separate ballot box for the U.S. congressional race.

To make that change easier for voters, affected counties have put the U.S. congressional race at the top of the ballot, before the straight-ticket option appears.


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