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Voting machines get touchy 

Arkansas readies for new election technology.

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Amid the recent failure to install electronic touch-screen voting machines statewide in time for the early primary voting that began May 8, little attention has been paid to the problems and confusion those machines potentially will produce.

Other states that already have made the transition to the touch-screen machines have experienced technical difficulties that have raised questions about the integrity of election results.

All states were required by the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) to replace older voting technology with touch-screen machines or other handicapped-accessible systems by the first federal election in 2006. According to Janet Harris, deputy Arkansas secretary of state for elections and public affairs, 46 Arkansas counties intend to exclusively conduct voting with touch-screen machines by the November general election. Twenty-six counties (including Pulaski, the state’s most populous) will have at least one touch-screen machine at each voting site, but voters also will have the option of completing paper ballots that are counted by electronic optical scanners. The remaining three counties (Columbia, Ouachita and Union) have other HAVA-compliant electronic machines.

Arkansas Secretary of State Charlie Daniels late last year accepted a contract bid from Election Systems and Software (ES&S) to provide the new machines.

However, Daniels announced last week that ES&S had failed to assign enough personnel to have the machines ready for early voting in Arkansas. Most precincts across the state will continue using optically scanned paper ballots or lever machines through the primary voting season, although Daniels said the touch-screen units will definitely be in place by November.

But that could introduce a new set of problems, judging from incidents in other states that have made the same switch. For instance, Ohio experienced widespread difficulties with its May 2 primaries, which was the first time all of the state’s counties used touch-screen voting machines and electronic ballot scanning equipment. Most of the problems involved equipment manufactured by Diebold, the main competitor to ES&S, and numerous glitches were reported, including lost votes, problems printing ballot receipts and delayed results. Some poll workers did not know how to operate the machines and ended up turning away voters.

ES&S touch-screen machines previously were implicated in election miscounts in Texas, North Carolina, West Virginia, Illinois and Florida. A company spokesman says those problems were mainly the result of mistakes in ballot preparation, rather than machine failure, and he said ES&S is attempting to ensure Arkansas has a more positive experience. At least one ES&S representative will be stationed in every Arkansas county for the May 23 primary voting to provide technical assistance.

“Certainly our focus is to prevent any problems occurring with the equipment and we are making every effort to do so,” said Ken Fields, the ES&S spokesman. “We’re very confident the equipment will perform well when used. Where we have acknowledged mistakes is in the preparation of ballots and preparing for the election. We’re doubling the management team in place and working closely with election officials. Where we have had problems, we’ve taken steps to address them. It requires great deal of effort in advance to make sure the equipment works as it is supposed to work, and the great majority of the time it works as it is supposed to.”

Susan Inman, who directs elections in Pulaski County, agrees that the machines work well with the proper preparation, but said the initial phase is proceeding poorly.

“It’s been very disappointing, very frustrating working with this company, and their customer service is terrible,” Inman said. “Still, I know when [the machines] are programmed correctly, they do work. The redundant testing we do before deployment verifies that they do work.”

Jim Lagrone, the Republican candidate for secretary of state who is challenging Daniels’ re-election bid this year, is making a campaign issue of the voting machine transition.

“Ongoing, seemingly insurmountable problems with [ES&S] voting equipment in Arkansas are the result of Charlie Daniels waiting too long to start the process and not doing his research on the company he was doing business with,” Lagrone said in a May 8 press release. “Daniels is racing to cover his tracks on this and it’s the voters of Arkansas who will pay the price. He has yet to tell the state of Arkansas and the Arkansas voters how much these mistakes are going to cost us.”

Harris says the secretary of state’s office is aware of the problems in other states and is preparing for them here. As part of an attempt to educate voters about the equipment change, they launched a website at www.votenaturally.org to provide information and instructions.

“As with any transition to any new technology, we expect glitches and other things we will have to deal with on election day,” Harris said. “We are trying to be aware of those and be prepared for any potential issues that may arise.”

Harris also acknowledged instances in Arkansas and elsewhere when voters reported touch-screen machines registering the wrong selection, no matter how many times the voter tried to choose otherwise. In response, she said the new touch-screen machines will produce a “voter verified paper audit trail,” which means that each voter will receive a printed receipt of his or her vote. However, Harris says voters shouldn’t be timid about calling attention to any perceived irregularities.

“I know there is a lot of apprehension,” Harris said. “I have definitely seen and heard that from a lot of people. If something goes wrong or you don’t think your vote is registered correctly or there is something you are unsure about, contact a poll worker and let them know. You never should walk away from a machine feeling that your vote wasn’t recorded properly.”


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