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Berkeley, Jefferson officials check out new voting machines

April 04, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Although funding limitations mean voters at the next election probably will still be punching holes in ballots, Berkeley and Jefferson County officials got a demonstration of two electronic voting systems Thursday, including a touch-screen option.

That system - which Berkeley County Clerk John Small Jr. compared to touch screens customers at Sheetz stores can use to order sandwiches - would cost the county more than $600,000.

A second option called an "optical scan" system, which uses paper ballots, would cost around $68,000, Small said.

"I prefer this one. It's better. And it's cheaper, too," Small said.

Unless the state or federal government contributes money to buy a system, the punch-card ballots that have been used for years will most likely still be in place at the next election, Small said.

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In West Virginia, 29 counties are using the optical scan system, said Danny Cline, a sales representative for Casto & Harris Inc., a Spencer, W.Va.-distributor of the voting machines.

More than a dozen county employees watched a demonstration given by Cline and sales representative Connie Weidler.

With the optical scan system, the same polling booths can be used, but a new, bigger ballot will be inserted. Voters will darken in ovals for the candidate they select, rather than punching out the hole.

A machine counts 500 ballots per minute, rather than the 400 counted per minute under the county's current system. Under the optical scan system, ballots are automatically sorted by precinct, which could help if ballots accidentally were mixed together, Cline said.

Five counties use the touch-screen system for voters who wish to cast a ballot in the days before an election, Weidler said. Only Cabell County uses them as its main voting system, she said.

By 2006, counties must have a handicapped-accessible voting machine available. Weidler showed off one that can be used by visually-impaired voters. After putting on a headset, the machine verbally guides the visually-impaired person through the ballot.

Precinct results can be tallied almost instantaneously with the touch-screen system, Weidler said.

"Faster than I can snap my fingers, it collects the totals," she said.

Although the county could enter into a lease-purchase agreement for seven years to buy either system, Small said he worries the touch-screen technology would be outdated when the agreement ended.

He said older residents might find that system too complicated.

Small and the Berkeley County Commissioners will decide whether to buy an electronic voting system, and if so, which one, Small said.

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