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Pinellas voters get sneak preview of possible poll systems

With a law demanding a paper trail next year, counties are shopping for scanners.

By JOSE CARDENAS, Times Staff Writer
Published September 26, 2007

Mark Earley helps Premier Election Solutions AccuVote OSX machine spit out a paper trail while demonstrating one of four different voting machines at the Supervisor of Elections office in Largo.
(From left) Vender Keith McGinnis shows Pinellas County poll workers Ron Smyth, Sharon Spohn, Jack Sharpe, Carol Venherm and Liz Sharpe a Dominion Voting ImageCast machine at the Supervisor of Elections office in Largo. Poll workers attended a series of demonstrations as part of the process of choosing one of four machines in accordance with a new law requiring counties to have new machines which produce a paper trial of ballots cast.

First the infamous hanging chads of the 2000 presidential election led counties in Florida to purchase touch screen voting machines that left no paper record.

Now a new law is requiring some of the state's largest counties, including Pinellas, to buy optical scanners to count paper ballots for elections after July 2008.

On Tuesday, about 250 people attended an open house at the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office to see four vendors demonstrate their scanners.

"I wanted to see the difference in the way the machines work," said Bill Rathburn, 72, a poll worker who lives in Seminole.

After Florida's vote-counting problems in 2000, Pinellas officials spent nearly $13-million to switch from punch card to touch screen voting.

This year's bill calls for Pinellas to turn its touch screen voting machines over to the Florida Department of State, which will decide whether to sell, scrap or salvage them.

Pinellas could be allowed to keep some of the touch screen machines for the disabled.

In this transition, Pinellas County probably will spend another $4.5-million on 440 optical scanners, said supervisor of elections spokeswoman Nancy Whitlock.

About half of the money will come from federal Help America Vote Act funds, Whitlock said. The other half will come from county coffers.

The Supervisor of Elections Office will create a committee of seven people, such as poll workers and maybe a county judge, to recommend which optical scanner to buy, Whitlock said. County commissioners will make a final decision by February.

The goal is to test the scanners chosen in one city during municipal elections in March.

The four companies at the open house were Dominion Voting, based in Toronto; Election Systems and Software of Omaha, Neb.; Premier Elections Solutions of Allen, Texas; and Sequoia Voting Systems, based in Denver.

"The bottom line" is that all the machines offer "an optical scanning system that produces a paper ballot," Whitlock said. "The voter has to have the opportunity to review their selection and make a change if they want to."

At polls, voters use pens or pencils to mark their ballots in private booths, then take the paper ballots to insert in the scanners, which resemble fax machines.

If a voter marks too many candidates or leaves a race blank, the scanner provides a written message or a sound as a warning. Voters then have a chance to change their ballots.

The scanner would tabulate the ballots and store them in compartments in the bellies of the machines. Some machines separate regular ballots from those with write-in candidates.

When polls close, the scanner would spit out final results on receipts similar to what comes out of a supermarket cash register.

[Last modified September 25, 2007, 23:19:16]

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