Clearwater asked to test new ballot
By CHRISTINA HEADRICK
© St. Petersburg Times,
Clearwater residents likely will be the first in Pinellas County to try new voting technology that the county must have by next fall in a statewide push to update Florida's polling places.
Pinellas Elections Supervisor Deborah Clark asked Clearwater city commissioners on Monday if city voters could try either optical scan or touch-screen systems in March 12 municipal elections, depending on which system the county decides to acquire later this year.
Clark said that using the city as a guinea pig of sorts would be an invaluable experience before the new system is used countywide in elections next fall, replacing much-maligned punch card ballots. Afterward, county workers could fine-tune new procedures and educational materials on how to use the new machines.
"We're looking for volunteers at this point," Clark said.
Commissioners didn't exactly jump at the proposition.
"Don't Dunedin and Safety Harbor have elections before us?" asked Mayor Brian Aungst, who is running for a second term in March.
But after Monday's workshop, most of the five-member commission said they saw no reason for the city not to launch the new voting system in March -- as long as county officials stay on schedule in purchasing the new system this year and show that it is ready.
"It might seem self-serving to say, "Not us,"' said Commissioner Whitney Gray, who added that she felt reasonably assured that any system the county chooses will be dependable.
Clark said she was hoping Clearwater would allow itself to be the first to test the new system because of its size, organized city elections staff and good working relationship with county election officials.
"We feel we're on pretty safe ground working with the city of Clearwater," Clark said.
Aungst and Commissioners Hoyt Hamilton and Bill Jonson peppered Clark with questions about how the new voting systems would work.
Clark emphasized that the March election trial would not be a test of any new system's merits, only of the administrative procedures to use the new system. The first shipment of the new voting equipment, she said, is slated to be received by year's end and to be thoroughly tested to make sure the technology functions before March.
With optical scanners, voters fill in a small oval or darken a line next to the candidate they want to vote for. The ballots are read by a scanner that can reject a ballot with any mistakes, such as voting for two people in the same race. If there is a problem, poll workers can allow a voter to fill out a new ballot, Clark told commissioners.
In a touch-screen system, voters tap a computer screen to indicate for whom they want to vote. The screen can show the voter his or her choices before the ballot is finalized, allowing the voter to make changes, Clark said.
The technology prevents double voting in a race, Clark said. And with the touch-screen system, a paper copy of the ballot can be printed so elections workers can check equipment for accuracy.
After the presentation, both Hamilton and Jonson said they felt comfortable with using a new system in March, as long as it is ready.
It costs Clearwater about $50,000 to hold a typical city election.
Clark said those costs would rise substantially with a new optical scanning system, going from a cost of about 5 cents per ballot to 25 or 30 cents per ballot. But the county elections office will absorb extra costs next year because the city has not planned for the expense in next year's budget, Clark said.
She added that the touch-screen technology, if chosen, could reduce the city's costs, although she did not have estimates Monday.
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