To touch or to scan? That is the question

by Amy Kingsley

Guilford County officials will soon face a multi-million dollar question: Touch-screen or optical scan? The question refers to voting technologies and their decision will have repercussions in the democratic arena as well as the financial one. While issues like cost and efficiency may keep a lower profile than headline-grabbing allegations about security and access, those concerns animate just as many experts with opposing opinions.

With Diebold out of the picture after the company withdrew its North Carolina bid in opposition to a law that required it to put its software in escrow, Guilford County officials must choose between optical scan and touch-screen machines, each made by Election Systems & Software. The county’s current direct record electronic, or touch-screen, machines do not comply with state regulations that require a paper record of each ballot cast.

If Guilford County decides to purchase new touch-screen machines, they must provide at least one machine per 250 voters to comply with standards set by the NC Board of Elections.

The county had 299,801 registered voters in 2005 and would need a minimum of 1,200 machines to meet the requirement. At $3,295 per machine, the total cost clocks in at almost $4 million.

Compared to touch-screen, optical scan systems have significantly lower capital costs, although some officials argue that the cost to run elections on them is higher. Election officials compute the necessary number of optical scan machines by precinct instead of the number of voters. Guilford County has 170 precincts including those open early and on Election Day. Each of those must have a machine that reads the marked ballots and another to automatically mark them for voters with disabilities.

The combined cost of both machines is $9,945 per precinct. The cost to equip the entire county with optical scan machines would be $1.7 million. Although the cost of purchasing optical scan equipment is less, Guilford County Elections Director George Gilbert said he must also consider the cost and ease of running future elections.

‘“This is not headline news,’” Gilbert said. ‘“These are just gut-level, real world nightmares.’”

What he’s referring to is the need to generate potentially hundreds of ballot styles for different precincts in partisan primaries. With touch-screen voting machines, technicians program each machine to automatically generate the correct ballot. If the county switched over completely to optical scan, workers at early voting centers would have to select the correct paper ballot from an enormous number of options.

Optical scan systems also generate ballot-printing expenses every year. Bettye Blackwell, an election technician in Durham County, estimated that printing ballots for the last election cost $22,700 for 157,509 registered voters.

A financial impact study conducted by the NC General Assembly estimated yearly expenses excluding equipment costs for a statewide optical scan system would run higher than $8 million. Touch-screen costs would be closer to $7.5 million.

Some costs related to touch-screen machines are difficult to calculate. More storage space is required because of the number of machines. Transportation can also be an issue. Technical support, extra batteries and cashier tape for the paper trail will eventually add up as well.

‘“We’ve always argued that for once, cost is on our side,’” said Joyce McCloy, a local advocate for paper-verified voting. ‘“Just imagine if the best machine actually cost more.’”

Some proponents of optical scan machines have tried to compare the cost of conducting elections with touch-screen to optical scan machines. A study of 33 Florida counties revealed those that switched from punch card to optical scan increased voting expenses by an average of 16.7 percent compared to 57.3 percent for the ones that switched to touch-screen. That study excluded the cost of purchasing equipment.

McCloy compared voting expenditures in Wake and Durham counties, which use optical scan, to Mecklenburg and Guilford, which use touch-screen, and found the latter counties spent almost 50 percent more per voter. The study does not specify what expenses were included in each county’s total.

Gilbert has advocated touch-screen voting for several years primarily because the automated ballot production and interface decrease the likelihood of human error. Before introduction of the Automark device that fills in ballots for disabled voters, touch-screen machines proved easier to make accessible. He said the popularity of early voting necessitates touch-screen systems so that poll workers do not have to search for the correct ballot style among hundreds of options.

Grants up to $12,000 per precinct are available from the state to cover the cost of buying new voting machines. That amount is more than enough for purchasing optical scans but almost $2 million short of Guilford County’s expected minimum investment in touch-screen.

The number of machines a county chooses to purchase also correlates with flexibility and wait times on Election Day. Once again, verified voting advocates argue that both issues reinforce their support for optical scan systems.

‘“With [touch-screens] you don’t have the flexibility,’” said Pam Smith of Verified Voting. ‘“If one isn’t working ‘— maybe it’s not even the machine’s fault ‘— everything comes to a screeching halt. You just don’t want to disenfranchise voters because of a machine breaking down.’”

With optical scan systems, voters can continue to fill out ballots even if the scanner breaks down. Completed ballots are kept in a locked box separate from those that have been scanned.

Both Smith and McCloy advocate a higher number of touch-screen machines per voter than the state. At the current ratio, 250 voters taking an average of three minutes to cast their ballot would take more than 12 hours.

Those figures assume maximum voter turnout, but in 2004 only about 60 percent of Guilford County voters turned out for the presidential race. Off-year elections generally have lower voter participation.

Optical scan supporters also argue that more people can vote at the same time on such systems. A voting center with six touch-screen machines could accommodate as many as 10 voters filling out optical scan ballots, Smith said.

Despite those conveniences, the Florida cost study revealed that the five counties with the largest voting populations opted for touch-screen voting machines. In North Carolina, 48 counties use optical scan. The other 52 use one or a combination of the following: paper ballots, touch-screen, punch card or lever.

Jerry Meek, president of the NC Democratic Party, announced before Christmas that the organization backed the purchase of optical scan systems. But he did make one concession to election officials in larger counties.

‘“In large counties it’s likely that election boards would need [touch-screens] for early voting,’” Meek said.

He acknowledged cost as a factor in his support for optical scan, but also said many voters felt more comfortable using those ballots.

‘“One factor we have to keep in mind is whether more people are likely to go vote if they are comfortable with the equipment,’” Meek said.

Gilbert has lobbied against paper trails for electronic voting since the General Assembly opened the debate on the North Carolina verified voting law that has since passed. He has also defended touch-screen systems against allegations that the machines are not secure, saying that technological safeguards ensure a more protected vote than other technologies.

He is not alone: county administrators oppose the law and the tight deadlines that require new machines by the April primary. The NC Association of County Commissioners has asked Gov. Mike Easley to eliminate or delay parts of the law to allow additional vendors to offer bids.

Counties must decide on new equipment by Jan. 20. A public forum for discussion of voting options for Guilford County will occur in January before the final decision is made, Gilbert said.

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