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County races to pick, fund a voting system

By DEBORAH O'NEIL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001


CLEARWATER -- With budget deadlines looming, Pinellas County officials realized Tuesday they must quickly decide what type of voting system to buy and where they will find millions of dollars to pay for it.

CLEARWATER -- With budget deadlines looming, Pinellas County officials realized Tuesday they must quickly decide what type of voting system to buy and where they will find millions of dollars to pay for it.

The painful reality set in as Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark outlined the multimillion-dollar options to the County Commission.

An optical scan system, which uses paper ballots, would cost between $3-million and $5-million to buy, $80,000 annually to maintain and $250,000 per election for ballots. The more sophisticated touch-screen system, which electronically records votes, would run between $12-million and $15-million, with $180,000 a year for maintenance.

As part of the election overhaul that eliminated the punch card ballot system, the state is giving Pinellas County $1.2-million toward the cost of new voting machines. Still, that leaves millions more for the county to cover. And Tuesday, the county attorney crushed the hope some commissioners had of tapping the Penny for Pinellas, saying the sales tax money couldn't be used to buy new machines.

That leaves property taxes.

"If that's the case, all we need is a number because it only leaves one option," said Commission Chairman Calvin Harris.

Clark's presentation to the weary commission came at the end of a nearly four-hour session that included a request by Sheriff Everett Rice for a budget increase of $12.5-million.

Commissioners pressed Clark to provide them with detailed cost information as soon as possible. Clark said she will make a recommendation on which system her office prefers by the end of next week, although she said she is leaning toward the touch-screen system. The commission will discuss the issue at a workshop June 4.

"We have a budget issue," Commissioner Bob Stewart said.

"We're getting very close to the end of this process. Something has to be cranked in somewhere knowing there's going to be a cost."

The tentative budget is set to be submitted to the commission June 26. The county must approve its property tax rate by July 17, after which time the board can lower the tax rate but not increase it.

"There's a lot of work ahead of us," county budget director Mark Woodard said.

But, Woodard said, it's not all a doomsday scenario. For instance, he said, the county might be able to finance the cost of the system over several years.

Still, implementing the new system is a significant undertaking that only begins with the initial decision. There's voter education to consider. And training the elections staff and poll workers. The elections office must rewrite all its policies, which are now based on the punch card ballot system.

"This is a massive project," Clark said. "There are a lot of little pieces that need to fit together."

Voting equipment on display

The Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office will hold a public display today of new voting equipment. Residents will be asked to fill out surveys about which voting machines they prefer, which the county will use as it decides on a system to purchase. The display will take place from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Election Service Center at 14255 49th St. N, Suite 202 in Clearwater.

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