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Pa. voters to see changes at ballot box in May primary

March 15, 2006|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Almost $800,000 in new election equipment was ordered by the county Tuesday for use in the May 16 primary, but most voters will not notice a difference until they slip the paper ballot into the ballot box.

The county is purchasing 78 precinct counters for $390,000 and 75 AutoMARK Voter Assist Terminals for $382,000 that are certified with the state to be in compliance with the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA), said Deputy Chief Clerk Jean Byers. In the case of the AutoMARK voting machines, the state certification was given Friday, she said, adding that HAVA compliance is mandatory for the upcoming primary.

The county is to receive a federal grant of $792,000 toward paying for the voting equipment and other changes needed to bring the county into compliance with HAVA, Byers said.

"The biggest change is the ballot box is a lot larger and it's topped with a ballot counter," Commissioner G. Warren Elliott said. Most voters, with the exception of the visually or physically impaired, will still go to the polls and darken ovals on the same paper ballots the county has been using since the 1980s.

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In prior elections, voters slipped the ballots into the ballot boxes in the county's 74 precincts, which were then driven to the county's Administrative Annex for counting. On May 16, the primary ballots will be tabulated as they go into the ballot boxes.

As the ballot passes through the counter, it will pick up whether a voter cast too many votes for an office and give them the opportunity to correct the ballot, Elliott said.

"People used to tell us they voted for all three of us," said Elliott, referring to himself and fellow commissioners Bob Thomas and Cheryl Plummer. The problem was, the ballot instructions were to vote for not more than two commissioner candidates and anyone voting for more than that did not have their votes counted, he said.

The machines will not be programmed to pick out undervotes, since many people choose not to vote on some political races, Elliott said.

Byers said polling officials will take a memory card from the counters, which will be inserted into a computer at the annex on election night. That will be faster than having the ballots counted after they arrive at the annex, she said.

Poll workers will still have to count write-in ballots by hand at each precinct, but the counter will separate ballots with write-ins from others so they are easier to count at the end of the night.

The AutoMARK machines at each precinct will allow special-needs voters to use a touch screen, Braille buttons, headphones or other features to cast their votes. Voters unable to use a touch screen can use a "sip/puff" tube to make their selections. The machines also can be programmed in a number of languages, Byers added.

The contested results in a handful of Florida counties in the 2000 presidential election prompted passage of HAVA, but the paper ballot and optical scanner system used by the county since the 1980s has been very effective, Plummer said.

Out of about 56,000 votes cast in the 2004 presidential election, "we had one unreadable ballot," and that was intentional on the unknown voter's part, Plummer said.

Elliott said the system was not much different from a high school SAT test, during which students fill in dots for the answers, which are then read by an optical reader.

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