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New machines won't be used in early voting in W.Va.

April 14, 2006|by ROBERT SNYDER

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Early voters in Berkeley County, W.Va., won't be able to use the county's new touch-screen voting machines because of a delay by the state's elections vendor in programming the ballots, the secretary of state's office announced this week.

The delay, which was announced one day ahead of the last day for public testing of the new machines, will mean voters who opt to cast their ballots during the early-voting period that begins April 19 will have to use the optically scanned paper balloting system, said Bonnie Woodfall, head of the county's voter registration and elections office.

"Everybody will be able to start early voting one way or the other," Woodfall said.

In a press release, West Virginia Secretary of State Betty Ireland said changes required by the Help America Vote Act of 2002 have meant voting machine vendors throughout the country have had to prepare upgrades for all 50 states at the same time, hence the delay.

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"Sometimes this can happen when sweeping federal legislation affects all 50 states," Ireland said in the April 11 news release.

Woodfall said the delay will not prevent the machines from being fully tested and the testing certified before they are put into use. This will happen either once early voting starts next week or in time for the county's primary election May 9.

"They will be tested," Woodfall said. "They can't be used without being tested."

Woodfall, who said she was alerted last week that there could be a delay, said two components of the new machines, a prepared election ballot cassette and a flash card which is mounted to the top of the machines, have not yet been programmed by the state's vendor, Election Systems and Software of Omaha, Neb.

Secretary of State Chief of Staff Ben Beakes said each county has had to work with the vendor individually to prepare its own ballots.

Beakes said the counties already had a supply of mail-in and absentee ballots on hand, and more ballots will be printed for early voting.

Most affected by the delay will be the county's blind and sight-impaired voters who choose to vote during the early voting period, Woodfall said.

"If they want to come in for early voting, they're going to have to have assistance like they always have in the past," she said.

The touch-screen machines were paid for with $19 million the state received from the federal government as part of new legislation passed in the wake of the 2000 elections.

County Clerk John Small said the machines will be integrated into early voting, which will be held at the county courthouse if they are ready before May 6, when early voting ends.

By the primary election, Berkeley County will have one touch-screen machine in each of the county's 65 precincts, Woodfall said.

Jefferson County officials also will not be able to offer the touch-screen machines for early voting, Jefferson County Clerk Jennifer Maghan said Thursday.

Maghan said it was a statewide problem and added that she was "terribly sorry" about the situation. Early voters instead will use a new paper ballot system and officials will be on hand to help voters through the new process, Maghan said.

The touch-screen machines will be available for the May 9 primary, Maghan said. There will be one machine in each precinct so most voters will continue to use the paper ballot system.

Staff writer Dave McMillion contributed to this story.

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