Crunch time arrives for voting machines

May 04, 2006|by ROBERT SNYDER

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Despite assurances that Berkeley County's new electronic voting machines would be available in time for next week's primary election, continuing problems are casting the machines' readiness in doubt, a county elections official said Wednesday.

Berkeley County Voter Registration and Elections Supervisor Bonnie Woodfall said that the county's store of touch-screen voting machines, of which one was to be placed in each of the county's 65 precincts, have not been able to be successfully tested.

"We're having a few problems," Woodfall said of efforts to test the machines this week.

Woodfall said two components of the touch-screen machines that prevented their being used at the start of early voting- a prepared election ballot cassette and a flash card which is mounted to the top of the machines- have been programmed and installed, but problems persist in being able to score vote tallies from the machines during testing.

The delay in getting the machines ready has meant that early voters have had to use the optically scanned paper balloting system, which county officials elected last year to install in time for this year's election following passage of the Help America Vote law in 2002.


Woodfall said late Wednesday she awaited word from a representative of Election Systems and Software, the Nebraska-based company the state contracted to provide the machines to each of West Virginia's 55 counties that requested them, to assist with resolving the problem.

In a strongly worded press release last week, Secretary of State Betty Ireland criticized the company for delays in getting the machines' electronic ballot cassettes programmed.

"I am absolutely appalled by ES&S's delays and the hardships ES&S has placed upon this state and our county officials," Ireland said. "I am not happy in the least with the current situation in which ES&S has placed us."

Woodfall agreed.

"They rushed to get us done and now the counties are suffering," said Woodfall, adding she believed the company should have had a representative in place in every county to ensure the machines, which were paid for with a $19 million federal allocation, would function properly.

Last week, following a request by Ireland, Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Paul ZaKaib signed an order extending the deadline to May 8, one day ahead of the election, for the machines to be publicly tested.

Without the order, the original testing deadline would have expired May 2.

Jefferson County Clerk Jennifer Maghan said issues with voting machines there have been resolved and public testing is scheduled for Friday.

"We're in good shape," she said.

ES&S spokesperson Jill Friedman-Wilson said the company regrets the delays, but called much of the problems associated with readying the machines a struggle to comply with the new federal law.

"What we're experiencing is challenges related to the implementation of the Help America Vote Act," Friedman-Wilson said. "We're working as closely as we can with our county partners as quickly as we can."

Friedman-Wilson, who said the company is contracted to provide voting equipment in counties in all but three states, said the company also had to rely on the cooperation of the counties in programming the ballots.

"ES&S doesn't have responsibility for the substance of the ballots," Friedman-Wilson said. "There's quite a bit of back and forth. It's an intricate process with many steps."

Friedman-Wilson said equipment is in place in all but four counties in West Virginia.

Early voting ends Saturday and the optical scan machines will be available for use for Tuesday's primary, Woodfall said.

"It's not going to stop our election," she said.

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