Future of voting is here -- in tiny Burke County
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001
MORGANTON, N.C. -- For six years, Vester R. Clontz waged a lonely campaign to drag "little old Burke County" into the age of high technology.
He wasn't talking about ATMs or home computers.
Last year, after convincing county commissioners it was worth the $500,000 price tag, Clontz got his system. And Burke County, a largely rural community in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, began learning lessons that could apply on a larger scale in Florida, where officials are working to fix an election system that was hopelessly tainted by last year's disputed presidential race.
Perhaps the largest revelation was that Burke County's older voters and others unaccustomed to computers have, by most accounts, adapted well to the new system, which got its first big test in the Nov. 7 election.
"We have an electronic system that works real well and we love it," said Chuck Welter, an 81-year-old retired chemical engineer who moved to Morganton, the county seat, four years ago. "It's the way everything operates today. It's easier to use than a microwave oven: Touch the spot and there it goes."
Caroline Grisette, a 58-year-old Presbyterian minister, said she's "terrified" of computers but found the touch screen "a piece of cake" to operate. "You put your finger on it, and if you can't do it (the poll workers) are there to help you," she said.
Both voters live at the Grace Ridge retirement center, which is better known for its stunning views of Table Rock, Grandfather and Hawk's Bill mountains than for the role it played recently in a grand civic experiment. Before buying the system last February from UniLect Corp. of Dublin, Calif., the Board of Elections tested it in the precinct dominated by Grace Ridge's 108 registered voters.
"They were all very pleased; that is what helped us make the decision," said Clontz, 77, who now is praised around town as a visionary.
Many locals could not help but notice the difference between their clean presidential election and Florida's dirty one, and they are keenly aware that their small rural county is more advanced, at least in one respect.
"To think that little old Burke County had it and Florida didn't, with all those well-heeled citizens streaming in," mused Jean C. Ervin, who in her 90s is one of Morganton's leading citizens and the sister of the late Sam Ervin, who rose to prominence in the 1970s as Senate Watergate Committee chairman.
"It's working beautifully," she said.
The Burke County experience is at odds with the prominent perception that older voters don't like electronic voting and can't handle it -- a notion that is coloring the debate in Florida as legislators prepare to tackle the issue.
Similar echoes are heard in communities across the country that have pioneered in electronic voting and reported success -- all with little resistance from voters traditionally thought to be technologically challenged.
In Summit County, Colo., where officials used the Nov. 7 election to test a computer voting system, nearly 1,000 voters were surveyed as they left the polls. Among them were 212 people older than 65, only 12 of whom said they found the system difficult to operate. The survey was conducted by Hart InterCivic of Austin, Texas, the company that installed the machines. Hart's system uses a dial to select candidates instead of a touch screen.
In Riverside County, Calif., where Sequoia Pacific Voting Systems installed a $14-million touch screen system last year, a survey of more than 1,300 voters -- half of them older than 60 -- found only six people who said it was difficult to operate.
Michelle Townsend, Riverside's registrar of voters, said the popularity of nearby Indian gaming facilities made the transition easier for the area's large retiree population, accustomed as they are to touch-screen gambling machines. "They found it very easy to do," she said. "They've been doing it in other areas of their lives."
In Baltimore, where a push-button electronic voting system is in its fifth year, elections director Barbara Jackson is quick to reject assumptions about senior voters. "No, no, no," she said. "The older people love it."
Jackson remembers the initial reaction at senior centers. "At first when you say computers, they shun back and say, "I don't know how to do it,' " she recalled. "But when you show them, they find it very easy to operate."
It's all in how you approach people, said Marvin Cheatham, Baltimore's Board of Elections president, who trained many senior voters.
"I asked them, "How did you come here? You pressed an elevator button,' " he recalled. "I first let them know, "What you're about to see is new, but it's related to something you've already been doing.' "
Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida professor who has written a book on older voters, cited studies showing seniors are the fastest-growing group of personal computer users.
"A lot of people think technology is just for the young," she said. "That is certainly a notion that is being tossed out the window."
Earlier this year, Hart InterCivic was the first manufacturer of electronic voting machines to apply for certification in Florida, where seniors make up about 30 percent of the electorate. Sequoia and UniLect quickly followed. All three are gearing up with new capital and more employees in anticipation of new orders from election officials across the country who were sobered by Florida's ordeal.
While the early reviews of electronic voting have largely been positive, none of the systems has met with universal approval.
In the survey taken in Summit County, Colo., some voters said the system by Hart InterCivic would cost too much. Others feared their privacy would be compromised. One felt forced by the machines to vote in races that he or she had wanted to leave blank. Another voter simply wrote: "Yuck."
"This is all pretty new technology," said professor Stephen Ansolabehere, one of four academics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology who are studying electronic voting systems in the wake of Florida's nightmare experience with punch card ballots.
"One of the big questions is how comfortable people are with it," Ansolabehere said. "That's the big unknown."
In a preliminary study of the four presidential elections since 1988, the Caltech-MIT team looked at two-thirds of the nation's 3,155 counties and found that electronic voting machines were "unreliable" an average of 3 percent of the time -- the same rate as the much-maligned punch card systems.
Other systems, including paper ballots, lever machines and optically scanned ballots, came in with an unreliability rate of about 2 percent. The study gauged unreliability by the number of presidential ballots that voters rendered uncountable by not casting a vote for president ("undervoting") or casting more than one vote for president ("overvoting").
The researchers cannot explain the 3 percent rate for electronic machines, which are often compared to ATMs. But they speculate it could be related to voter confusion caused by design flaws or a lack of familiarity with the technology.
"It's easy to make a mistake," Ansolabehere said. "Think about when you go to use the ATM, how many little mistakes you make along the way."
Many of the electronic systems on the market are "pretty impressive," he said, particularly those that offer audio features allowing blind and illiterate people to vote on their own. But some of them need more work, he said, a sentiment echoed last week by Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris when she recommended the state move cautiously toward electronic voting.
One company, Sequoia, has taken the Caltech-MIT study to task, saying the methodology was flawed and the results inconsistent with elections using Sequoia equipment. In the presidential election, for example, the number of undervotes in Riverside County's touch-screen system was less than 1 percent. Sequoia executives plan to meet with the researchers soon.
But another company, UniLect, concedes that some voters on Nov. 7 were confused by the prompts on its touch screen. In one precinct, said UniLect president Jack Gerbel, it was apparent that some people touched the screen for a presidential candidate then mistakenly canceled their votes by pressing the name a second time.
Across Burke County, where the precincts go by names like Smokey Creek, Upper Fork and Jonas Ridge, the undervote rate was 3 percent. Gerbel conceded that was high, but added the problem will be corrected easily with a warning affixed to voting booths.
Hart InterCivic's electronic voting machine offers a prompt at the end of the ballot to tell voters when they miss a race, a feature that cuts down on undervoting. The company is working to improve that function, said Bill Stotesbery, a Hart vice president. But he added, "We can't become too focused on that issue that we ignore the benefits of the system otherwise."
Undervoting isn't the only concern about electronic systems.
In Burke County, the machines in two precincts went down briefly on Nov. 7, forcing a few voters to cast "emergency" paper ballots.
One or two voters expressed concerns that their electronic vote could be matched to their name and broadcast over the Internet -- an impossibility, Clontz said.
Others like Grace Ridge resident Bill McComb, 83, didn't like computers period.
On a recent afternoon, as organ music filled the senior center's auditorium, McComb wasn't buying the argument that touch-screen voting is as easy as operating a microwave oven.
"I can't even open the microwave," he said, only half joking. On Nov. 7, McComb listened hard to the poll worker's instructions, but ended up asking her to vote for him.
"The younger people seem to be getting it faster," he said. "I think we just need a little more using it."
Said Clontz: "Some people are against motherhood."
After 15 years of service to democracy, the optical scan counters that tallied hand-marked ballots were starting to skew some close elections, their small internal belts drying and cracking with age.
Clontz, a retired systems manager, was comfortable with touch screens. But county commissioners fretted when UniLect's bid came in at $546,650 -- or about $11 per registered voter. They twice took the half-measure of setting aside $50,000 for the purchase, but it got spent on other things.
One day in frustration, Clontz told them: "I didn't know the Board of Elections was a profit center for the county. It's a service."
He finally wore them down, arguing the savings from not having to buy paper ballots could total as much as $80,000 a year. The touch screens arrived in time for two May elections that gave voters a taste of the system before the general election Nov. 7.
Thirty-three other North Carolina counties have similar voting systems.
Many Burke County residents remember a time when votes were cast on paper with an "X" next to a candidate's name. The 60-year-old ballot boxes from that era are piled high in the Board of Elections basement on Meeting Street, right next to the newer but time-worn optical scan counters that seem to weigh as much as two bags of sand.
"We got about 34 and we'll sell them cheap," Clontz said dryly. "If you got yachts down there in St. Petersburg, we can sell you one of these as an anchor."
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