Voting Becomes More Sophisticated

Voters in two states are among the first to use a lightweight tabletop voting machine

P> Reach out and touch your choice. Draw the curtain on the voting booth of the past and behold the glowing monitor of democracy in the information age where the power flows from the tip of your finger.

Take South Carolina's March 2 primary. Some voters in Georgetown County used a tabletop voting machine that vaguely resembles a child's Magna Doodle. Voters use a stylus to touch a backlit screen and register their choices. When they are done, they press a button marked "vote," and their choices are stored in the unit's memory.

The Votronic unit, manufactured by Election Products Inc. of Urbanna, Va., can record ballots from up to 1,000 voters. It weighs 7 pounds and operates on six D batteries. Several cities in North Carolina also will use the unit in the May 7 primary.

People who see the machine are surprised because it is so small, lightweight and easy to use, said Shelby Thomas, vice president of sales for Election Products.

Lever-operated voting machines were purchased, for the most part, in the 1950s, and punch card machines were sold primarily during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Machines that use optical scanning technology to read a ballot form came on the market in the mid- to late 1980s. So did Direct Recording Electronic Machines, which directly record votes into a computer's memory.

In most states, counties are responsible for purchasing and maintaining voting machines, so cost and longevity are important, said Marci Andino, director of information services and special projects for the South Carolina State Election Commission. Because jurisdictions purchase the machines, which usually last 10 years, there is a great disparity in what states use. Indiana, for example, has 25 MicroVote DREs, which 32 percent of registered voters use. Florida, on the other hand, has no DREs.

The biggest advantage of a DRE is that there is no paper, said Ed O'Day, president of United American Election Supply, West Columbia, S.C. The company sells MicroVote machines and supplies. Paper-based systems have two problems, he said. The first is expense. There is no way to know how many people will actually vote, so more ballots than are necessary are always printed. The DRE, on the other hand, records votes into memory, so money is not spent on ballots that will not be used.

The second problem is accuracy. If a voter inserts the paper ballot incorrectly, his selections will be improperly marked and may be eliminated because voting officials are unsure of the voter's intent.

DREs also offer more security - it's a lot harder to tamper with the memory of a computer chip than with paper ballots, said George Gilbert, director of elections for Guilford County, N.C. Guilford County uses the MicroVote, the Votronic and optical scan machines.

The Votronic's small size can be an advantage or a disadvantage, said Gilbert. It's good because it makes the machine easy to transport and set up. The small size also means the machine can be taken to curbside voters - people who are disabled, but who can drive to a polling place and vote from their vehicle. But it's a disadvantage because you can't get as many ballots on a screen, which may slow down voting in some precincts, Gilbert said.

However, physical characteristics are not the only things that distinguish the Votronic from traditional DREs. Big DREs cost $5,000 to $6,000, while the Votronic is priced between $2,800 and $3,300. The large DREs cost approximately 10 cents a voter; the Votronic costs one cent per voter.

A punch card machine costs approximately 30 cents per voter, while optical scan machines can cost as much as 35 cents to 50 cents per registered voter.

Nevertheless, Election Products has sold only two Votronic units since the first prototype was released in September 1993. The fact that only two units have been sold says more about the company's marketing resources than it does about the quality of the Votronic, said Gilbert.

Before a county buys a machine, it goes through a lengthy certification process. Also, the certification window is very limited. For example, Texas only certifies machines three months a year, making it difficult for the six-employee company to obtain widespread certification quickly.

The Votronic will sell, Gilbert predicted, because it's the most technologically sophisticated machine on the market.

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