There's just no good substitute for a reliable pencil and paper when it comes to election ballots, Douglas County commissioners decided Monday.
Commissioners gave preliminary approval to Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew's recommendation that the county should continue to rely on paper ballots, but must purchase roughly $850,000 in new equipment to count the ballots in a manner that will comply with federal laws.
"The comments I received from the public overwhelmingly were to maintain a paper-based system," said Shew, who organized five public meetings and a vendor fair that demonstrated the systems. "If I had to guess, it was probably 90 percent to 10 percent."
That means in August, when the new system must be in place to meet the provisions of the federal Help America Vote Act, voters still will receive the familiar paper ballot that requires them to darken an oval next to a candidate's name.
Instead of placing their ballot into a secure metal box, Douglas County voters will be asked to watch as the ballot is run through a scanning device at their polling station.
The new system also will have machines to let voters with disabilities vote without the assistance of a poll worker or friend. The upgrade in assisting disabled voters and a second-chance voting provision are key requirements in the new federal law.
Commissioners unanimously gave preliminary approval to the new system Monday, but they wanted to give the public one last chance to comment on the changes at their 6:30 p.m. Wednesday meeting before finalizing the decision.
Shew said he hadn't heard many concerns about the proposed system, which is manufactured by Omaha, Neb.-based Election Systems & Software Inc.
But new voting systems have been controversial nationally, where critics have alleged vote totals can be manipulated too easily. Jim March, an investigator with the consumer watchdog group Black Box Voting, said the system proposed for purchase by Douglas County had fared better than other systems.
Here's how the new voting system the county is proposing to buy from Election Systems & Software Inc. will work: ¢ Every county polling place will have at least one portable ballot scanning machine. ¢ Voters will mark a paper ballot, as they have in past elections. ¢ After they mark their ballot, voters will insert the ballot into the scanning machine. The machine will notify voters if they have double-voted for a position or otherwise marked the ballot in a way that would invalidate a portion of the ballot. Voters will be given a "second-chance" ballot if they mismark their first ballot. ¢ Poll workers will bring each scanning machine to the county courthouse after polls close. The data from each machine will be downloaded to a secure computer that will tabulate total results. ¢ Paper ballots will be kept for a recount, if needed.
But he said his group had concerns that federal testing procedures for all electronic voting machines were inadequate.
"We're at the point that we don't trust the federal oversight process at all," March said.
Security and vote-tampering issues were the main questions commissioners had as well.
Shew said he was confident of the system's security. He said although the scanners technically would count the votes at each polling place, none of the results would be transferred via the Internet or telephone line from polling places to the courthouse. Instead, poll workers will bring each machine and its computer chip to the courthouse. There the data will be downloaded into a computer unconnected to the Internet or phone lines.
If there is any suspicion of tampering or other problems, Shew said election workers simply could begin re-counting the paper ballots. That's why Shew chose this system over a touch-screen system that did not require voters to mark an actual paper ballot.
"We could go back and re-scan those ballots and re-create the entire election if we had to," Shew said.
Commissioners seemed satisfied.
"You have done your homework, involved the people and listened to the people," County Commissioner Bob Johnson said.
The federal government is providing $460,850 for the purchase of the machines. The county has been budgeting money for several years and has accumulated a reserve fund that will cover the remaining $395,000.