Boone County offers electronic voting system, likened to ATMs

Sunday, August 6, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:12 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

In addition to being the voice of democracy, Boone County voters will get a chance to try out some new gadgets during the primary election on Tuesday.

The primary will allow voters from individual political parties to choose their nominees for an array of offices, including U.S. senator, state auditor and state representative.

They’ll also choose nominees for judge and circuit clerk and decide whether to extend the state parks-and-soil tax. Columbia voters will say yes or no to a proposed $60 million bond issue for the city’s electric utility.

New voting machines mandated by federal law will be used for the first time, enabling voters to ensure their ballot is correct and providing access to voters with disabilities.

Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren compared the machines to ATMs but said their graphic displays are much more sophisticated.

“They’re quite good because it flows through and presents a ballot to people,” Noren said. “It’s not relying on you to turn a piece of paper over.”

Stacie Temple, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office, said the machines allow people with disabilities to vote unassisted and provide a verified paper record in case a recount is needed.

Even though the touch-screen machines are ready, nostalgic voters can still use traditional paper ballots, which are similar to fill-in-the-bubble tests.

But this year, these ballots will be checked by precinct ballot counters for mistakes.

For example, the counters can tell voters if they voted for too many candidates in a race, Noren said. Voters can then get a new ballot and try again, what Noren calls “second-chance voting.”

Temple said most Missouri counties favor the traditional method and that none has switched completely to touch-screen voting.

“Most of the counties are using optical scan machines as their primary method of voting,” she said.

The biggest statewide change is the end of punch-card systems, Temple said, which were used by 60 percent of voters in the last election. The punch-card system caused much of the “hanging chad” confusion in Florida during the 2000 presidential election.

The new machines arrived July 16.

Asked if she expects any problems with them, Noren said, “Well certainly. ... We’re trying to condense a four-month implementation into four weeks.”

But, she said, election workers have provided incredible support.

“We have a group of people who have stepped forward to help be trainers and trouble-shooters,” she said.

Roughly 450 election workers have gone through more than 200 hours of training to learn the new equipment, which Noren said is “fairly complicated stuff.”

Noren said the change will be easier because Tuesday’s election will see an estimated six or seven times fewer voters than the November 2004 general election.

The changes are mandated by the 2002 federal Help America Vote Act.

The law requires machines that check voters’ ballots before they are cast and machines that are accessible to people with disabilities.

Election Systems and Software Inc., based in Omaha, Neb., sold the machines to Boone County for $1.5 million.

The federal government kicked in more than half, $800,000, and the county had to make up the rest.

Noren has said the county will incur additional costs every year to store the machines and pay for maintenance.

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