Tennessee set to change voting machines

J. H. Osborne • May 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Paper ballots could be on their way back to a polling place near you, albeit with a technological twist.

And those electronic voting machines purchased just a couple of years ago — in order to meet then-new federal guidelines — will be abandoned, maybe save one per county precinct.

New voting guidelines approved by both houses of the Tennessee General Assembly — but not yet signed into law by the governor — call for all of the state’s 95 counties to go to optical scan voting no later than November 2010, Sullivan County Administrator of Elections Gena Frye said this week.

“It will change how we will be voting in the future,” Frye said.

The new law, if it goes into effect, will require that voting systems provide a “ballot of record,” via paper ballot marked by the voter, and require such ballots to be available to a voter to verify their votes, while maintaining the secrecy of the voter’s choices, Frye said.

“It calls for all counties in the state to begin using precinct-based optical scan voting systems by November 2010,” Frye said.

Other than for absentee ballots or emergency situations on election day, Sullivan County voters have never used optical scan ballots before, Frye said.

County voters first used paper ballots — counted by hand — Frye said, before mechanical lever-action machines became the norm, probably in the mid-20th century.

Electronic voting was first used for some city elections in the 1990s, and the equipment went countywide for all elections in 1996.

The machines in use now in Sullivan County were purchased in 2006 to meet requirements of the federal “Help Americans Vote Act” (HAVA).

Federal money flowed through the state to help buy the machines being used now — and Frye said Tennessee has roughly $25 million left, which might be spent to help counties buy the optical scan equipment.

“We’re going backwards, in the sense that we’ll be using paper ballots again,” Frye said. “But we’ll be using technology — the ballots will be scanned electronically — so it will be quicker than the old paper ballots.”

And if someone questions election results, there will be the option of hand-counting the ballots.

“A ballot will be printed for each voter, they will cast their ballot on that paper, and it will be placed in a scanner,” Frye said. “Their votes are scanned, and the ballot is then dropped into a collection bin, which is locked.”

If a voter has “over-voted,” for example, casting votes for more candidates in a single category than allowed, the scanner will reject the ballot, and the voter will have a chance to correct it and try again. The same thing would occur if the voter’s choices aren’t clearly read by the scanner.

“It will still be counted electronically,” Frye said. “But this law also requires us to do a manual audit, of a certain percent of a ballots, of the top race.”

Another option considered was using current electronic voting machines and adding a “voter-verified paper trail” — basically a paper tape much like a cash register tape, but in this case the voter would only be able to see the tape go by behind a screen as they voted, rather than getting an actual “receipt” to take with them.

Frye said giving paper proof of votes cast can encourage vote-buying.

The optical scan system of voting has some drawbacks, Frye said — including costs associated with buying and storing the paper ballots.

“We’ll have to keep them for a prescribed period of time,” Frye said. “How long has not been decided yet. That’s going to be a storage problem for county election offices.”

The equipment itself, Frye said, is not necessarily that expensive, but where counties will incur ongoing expense will be buying the paper ballots.

Frye estimates the paper ballots required for the optical scan voting machines will cost the county more than $40,000 for each election.

To remain HAVA compliant, Sullivan County would likely continue to offer at least one of the currently used electronic machines at each precinct, Frye said.

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