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    Electronic balloting wins votes

    In a test, most people favor the screen over paper, but the latter is far less expensive.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2001

    [Times photo: James Borchuck]
    Marguerite Merrell of Redington Shores tries a touch-screen voting machine for a survey Wednesday.
    Given the choice between paper-based ballots and touch-screen voting, an overwhelming majority of local residents prefer the newer, more expensive technology.

    About 75 percent of 630 people who filled out surveys after seeing examples of both systems Wednesday favored touch-screen voting. Many said they don't want anything to do with marking on a paper ballot.

    All five companies that set up mock voting booths at the county's Election Service Center offered a touch-screen system. Two also offered paper ballots that would be counted with an optical scanner.

    After the crowd had spoken, Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark said she was leaning toward recommending touch-screen voting to the County Commission.

    "I'm not basing my decision solely on the result of my survey today," she said. "This is important, of course, but we have to factor in other issues. Accessibility is an issue; ease of use for the voters and the poll workers is an issue."

    Also an issue: money.

    The paper-based optical scan system would cost between $3-million and $5-million to buy, $80,000 annually to maintain and $250,000 per election for ballots. The touch-screen system would cost $12-million to $15-million, with $180,000 a year for maintenance.

    After Clark makes a final recommendation, possibly not until next month, it will be up to the County Commission to decide how to spend millions of dollars to update and simplify voting.

    Barbara Evans, an eight-year Clearwater poll worker, visited with the vendors for more than an hour.

    She has seen people who just don't understand how to cast their ballots. Because of her experiences, Evans strongly supports the touch-screen system, which she called simple.

    Jane Abel, 71, also a poll worker, said: "I don't like the (paper) ballot at all. Some of the people think the elderly people wouldn't like the electronic ballot, but you know, we're not young and we don't care about having the paper."

    While many gave a thumbs-up to whatever choice the county decides to go with, others had serious concerns.

    Walton Dutcher Jr. is the chairman for the Committee to Advocate for Persons with Impairments in St. Petersburg. He said he liked what the companies presented to accommodate people with visual impairments, but said he still wasn't satisfied.

    "There is a disappointment that they were not fully prepared to demonstrate all of the accessible features," Dutcher said.

    At times, when Dutcher approached a voting machine, he could not get his wheelchair close enough to cast a vote.

    Company representatives told Dutcher they didn't bring with them their products to help him, and often showed him pictures of what he'd find on election day if the county buys their product.

    All of the displayed machines had headphones designed for blind people. An automated voice would inform voters of the simple keypad layout in front of them, and then go through the list of candidates and races allowing the person to vote.

    Company representatives say the technology will allow blind people to vote 100 percent assistance-free, meaning no one else will see the ballot.

    Although the support for touch-screen voting was clear, no vote was taken as to which company's system was the most popular.

    County officials must soon decide which system to use because of budget deadlines. Pinellas was forced to change its balloting system after a state election overhaul that eliminated punch card voting. The state is giving Pinellas $1.2-million toward the cost of the new machines, a fraction of the expected cost.

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