Sullivan County to pilot optical voting equipment

J. H. Osborne • Jun 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County voters will be among the first in Tennessee to try a new paper ballot voting system mandated by state law, Sullivan County Administrator of Elections Gena Frye said Monday.

Frye said local election officials have been notified Sullivan County is one of five of the state’s 95 counties set to try optical voting equipment next month.

Sullivan County residents who early vote for Aug. 5 elections will use paper ballots and optical scan equipment if they cast their early ballots at the Sullivan County Office Building in Blountville — one of three early voting sites available in the county.

“We are doing this to introduce the voters to the system,” Frye said. “We do want to expand use of this in November. The switch to optical scan is what is going to happen. The legislature passed this, and this is what we will be using as a voting system no later than 2010. So we’re just trying to get a jump on things and help the voters get adjusted to it. It’s mandatory by 2010.”

The new law requires that voting systems provide a “ballot of record,” via paper ballot marked by the voter, and requires 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.

Voting 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.

The state is paying the bill for Sullivan County’s test use of the paper ballot system next month, Frye said.

Other counties in the state expected to test the optical scan system next month are Anderson, Knox, Loudon and Roane, Frye said.

“The voter will mark their paper ballot, in private, then take it themselves and feed it into the scanner,” Frye said. “The scanner reads the ballot, and if there is a problem with the ballot — such as an undervote or an overvote — the scanner will let the voter know. At that point the voter can either make corrections or indicate they want the ballot to be counted as it was first entered.”

The ballots then drop into a holding area in the base of the scanner.

“It’s like dropping them in a big box,” Frye said.

On Aug. 5, all county precincts will use the electronic voting machines that have been in use the past several elections, Frye said.

Use of the optical scan paper ballot system will expand to all early voting locations in Sullivan County for the November election, Frye said, but on Election Day that month county precincts will again use the electronic machines.

A good thing about the optical scan system is that it isn’t limited by the number of voting machines, Frye said.

“As long as you have enough booths to give the voters privacy for filling out their ballots, you aren’t limited,” Frye said. “You can have as many as you need.”

Voters will have to then feed their ballots into scanners — so there could be a line at that point in the process, Frye said.

“I’m requesting that we have some extra scanners in November,” Frye said. “The actual scanning process is fairly fast, so it should move along quickly.”

To remain HAVA compliant, Sullivan County will continue to offer at least one of the currently used electronic machines during next month’s use of the optical scan system — and at each precinct countywide even after 2010, Frye said.

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