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Clerk says machines will take punch out of voting

March 03, 2006|by DON AINES

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Insert the paper ballot and the touch screen of the AutoMARK Voter Assist terminal lights up with the command to "Vote For Not More Than TWO."

Don't like any of the choices? Then touch the write-in position on the screen to call up a video keyboard and type in your selection.

Jefferson County Clerk Jennifer Maghan says there will be one of these devices at each of the county's 33 precincts in time for the May 9 primary, along with optically-scanned paper ballots that will replace the punch card ballots that have been used for years.

"All of the candidates' names will be on the ballot, which has never happened before," said Maghan, explaining that the punch card system required voters to punch numbered holes that correspond with the number assigned to the candidate.

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When voters go to the polls, they will get a paper ballot and pencil in the candidates of their choice, Maghan said Thursday. Voters can use the AutoMARK machines, but the machines have functions which allow physically and visually-impaired voters to cast their ballots. Braille keys allow the blind to vote, while hearing the list of candidates and offices through headphones.

Don't speak English? Maghan says the machines can be programmed in different languages.

If a voter fails to vote for an office, or accidentally votes for too many candidates, running the ballot through the AutoMARK will result in a visual reminder coming up on screen that they have under- or over-voted.

This is the first election in which counties must have voting machines that comply with the Help America Vote Act, passed in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election when apparent voter confusion over some ballot system used in a handful of Florida counties resulted in electoral chaos.

The problems in Florida prompted West Virginia to no longer allow punch-card systems, she said.

"I have pretty good confidence in this system," Maghan said. There will be five poll workers at each precinct and she expects they, too, will quickly get the hang of the new machines, manufactured by Election Systems & Software.

There also will be opportunities for voters to get a feel for the system prior to the day they actually go in to vote, Maghan said. One of the machines is in the Jefferson County Courthouse for voters to try, but Maghan said the county also is taking this educational show on the road, holding demonstrations before church and civic groups on request.

The system will be demonstrated for the Shepherdstown Rotary Club at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and for the Charles Town Kiwanis Club at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, she said.

The machines cost $5,872 apiece, but Maghan said more than $3,000 of that is paid for by federal and state grants. The system cost the county $89,776, she said.

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