High Costs Could Slow Proposed Voting Reforms

High Costs Could Slow Proposed Voting Reforms<@VM>Help is on the Way<@VM>Voting Systems<@VM>Vendors with NASED-Qualified Voting Systems

By William Welsh, Staff Writer

Federal and state lawmakers are vowing to do whatever it takes to standardize and upgrade voting systems in the wake of the election turmoil in Florida, but the accompanying price tag may give them second thoughts.

Early estimates suggest that between $4.2 billion and $6.5 billion will be required to upgrade and modernize existing equipment at the more than 200,000 voting sites throughout the nation, according to the National Association of State Election Directors of Washington. The cost projections are based on an average of 3.5 voting machines at each voting site.

In Ohio, for example, state officials have concluded that it will cost $400 million to convert 70 of the 88 counties still using punch cards to touch screens, said J. Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio's Secretary of State.

Riverside County, Calif., in September 2000 paid $14 million to replace its older punch-card systems with 4,000 new touch-screen systems.

To replace or upgrade an existing voting machine without providing disability access or language translation capabilities ranges from $4,500 to $5,500, said Doug Lewis, executive director of NASED's Election Center in Houston. Adding disability and language translation features increases the price per unit to between $13,000 and $15,000.

"Local jurisdictions will look long and hard at [upgrading their equipment]," Lewis said. "While some may act independently, a lot won't do anything because they don't have the funds."

James Ries Jr., president of MicroVote Corp., a provider of voting systems, said lack of funding will be a problem. Ries said that, although citizens and politicians are more aware now than ever of the limitations of aging equipment, the crisis in the last election was restricted to Florida.

"The federal government reacts to disasters, but this was only a disaster in Florida," he said.Despite Ries' skepticism, many federal and state officials and organizations are taking steps to evaluate and reform elections procedures.

Two election reform bills already have been introduced in the Senate and, at press time, a third was about to be introduced in the House of Representatives. All three measures would provide matching grants to help states and localities upgrade their voting systems.

The Election Reform Act of 2000, introduced by Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., contains a provision that would establish a $250 million matching grant program, while the Election Reform Act, introduced by Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., would provide up to $100 million in matching grants per year to states and localities to improve voting systems.

The Federal Election Standards Act of 2000, which is expected to be introduced in the House by Reps. William Delahunt, D-Mass., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., would provide an as-yet-unspecified amount of matching grants to improve election procedures, said spokesmen in those congressional offices.

"The federal government has not helped counties finance the administration of elections in the past, but I expect that to change in the new Congress," said Thomas Mann, W. Averell Harriman Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington.

Such funding will be essential to any successful effort to upgrade voting systems used by the 3,066 counties in the United States, said election researchers.

Nevertheless, while states may welcome federal assistance, they will be wary of any requirements that Congress attaches to the funding, said Ohio's Blackwell.

"The federal government can't and shouldn't encroach on states, because they are the ones responsible for administering and overseeing the election process," he said.

Many state and local governments, in fact, are moving ahead with their own election process studies. Maryland, for example, has established the Special Committee on Voting Systems and Procedures, which must report its recommendations to Gov. Parris Glendening by Feb. 9.

The National Commission on Election Standards and Reform, sponsored by the National Association of Counties and the National Association of County Recorders, Election Officials and Clerks, has mailed a survey to 1,000 election officials to gather information about existing voting equipment and ballot counting procedures.

The survey may produce recommendations for state legislatures, said Ardis Schmitt, executive director of NACRC.

The National Governors' Association will discuss security, privacy and technology related to voting as part of the agenda of its e-government task force, said Thom Rubel, the association's program director for state information technology in Washington. "Florida elevated the issue [for the governors' association]," he said.

"States can be a funding partner for counties, and the federal government can offer incentives for standardization and modernization," said Blackwell.

The Federal Election Commission lists about 25 voting system vendors on its Web site. The FEC and NASED are collaborating on establishing voting system standards to ensure that election systems are accurate and secure. Thirty-one states, including California, Florida and Texas, have either adopted the FEC's voting system standards or are using NASED's independent testing facilities.

To date, the independent testing authorities have approved election systems manufactured by 10 vendors. In addition, election systems also may have to pass certification tests established and performed by individual states and end users, according to the FEC.

The presidential election showed election officials the potential consequences of outdated systems, said Jerry Meadows, senior vice president of the Election Solutions Group, Hart InterCivic Inc. of Austin, Texas.

In 2000, Hart InterCivic introduced an innovative direct recording electronic system known as eSlate, a small voting device that is well-suited for the disabled voter. The device has met NASED qualifications.

"As a result [of the presidential election], we are seeing a significant increase in the number of jurisdictions evaluating eSlate and the urgency with which they are undertaking the procurement effort," he said.

Hart InterCivic employees about 250 nationwide with production facilities in Alabama, Colorado and Texas. The company's election solutions group has about 85 employees, said Meadows.

Hart InterCivic traditionally has provided the paper products for paper ballot and punch-card voting systems. Its annual sales range from $10 million to $15 million, he said.

"We see eSlate as a bridging technology that will take [voting] to the next level, [which is] Internet voting," said Meadows. The company also is developing an Internet voting application that will be introduced soon, he said.

Meanwhile, companies that have developed Internet voting applications ? for example, VoteHere.net of Bellevue, Wash. ? are intent on getting their Internet systems approved in as many states as possible in 2001.

"We've been showing [the Internet voting system] to secretaries of states and election directors," said Jim Adler, VoteHere.net's president and executive officer, who is optimistic that his company's Internet voting system will be approved in 40 states this year.

Jurisdictions using punch cards and lever machines have a variety of choices when upgrading to modern technology, Meadows said. The larger counties probably will not go to systems known as optical scan "because they don't see it as much of a move forward in technology," he said.

The transition to newer systems for most jurisdictions, unlike Riverside County, Calif., will be a slow process because of the financial commitment involved, he said. Riverside County purchased its new equipment from Sequoia Pacific Voting Equipment Inc. of Hayward, Calif.

Counties that are hard-pressed financially can always lease voting systems, said MicroVote's Ries. Leasing allows them to spread the acquisition cost over the life of the system, he said. And the leasing rationale becomes even stronger given the high costs associated with modern systems.

MicroVote has 20 employees and annual sales of between $10 million and $25 million. Its direct recording electronic systems, such as touch screen systems, are used by jurisdictions in 10 states located throughout the Midwest and Southeast.

The vendors that provide election systems are part of a small business community that has modest sales compared to other technology sectors, said Kim Brace, president, Election Data Services, Washington. Few new companies have entered the business because of the risks associated with it, he said.

"It's a high-risk business because states require bonds for companies that do it," Brace said.

Although MicroVote would benefit from the modernization of election equipment, Ries said the high cost will be a roadblock to substantial change. Ries said that some jurisdictions are still using 60-year-old equipment.

In general, voting equipment "doesn't get the attention it deserves," he said.The voting systems described below are those certified for use in federal, state and local elections in the United States. Paper ballots are used in 1.5 percent of precincts, punch cards in 34.5 percent, lever machines in 18.5 percent, Marksense optical scanning in 27.5 percent, direct recording electronic in 9 percent and mixed systems in 9 percent.

Paper Ballots: A paper ballot system uses uniform official ballots of various stock weight, on which the names of candidates and issues are printed. Voters record their choices in private by marking the boxes next to the candidate or issue they select and dropping the ballot in a sealed box. Paper ballots are used as the primary voting system in small communities and rural areas and often for absentee balloting in other jurisdictions.

Mechanical Lever Machines: On mechanical voting machines, the name of the candidate or ballot issue choice is assigned a particular lever in a rectangular array on the front of the machine. A set of printed strips identifies the lever assignment for each candidate and issue choice. Lever machines are no longer made and are rapidly being replaced by computer-based Marksense or direct recording electronic systems.

Marksense (Optical Scan): Marksense employs a ballot card on which candidates and issue choices are printed next to an empty rectangle, circle, oval or an incomplete arrow. Voters record their choices by filling in the space or by completing the arrow. Ballots are either placed in a ballot box or fed into a computer at the precinct. Marksense systems use is on the rise.

Punch Cards: Punch-card systems employ a card and a small clipboard-sized device for recording votes. Voters punch holes in the cards opposite their candidates or issue choices. Ballots are either placed in a box or fed into a computer at the precinct. Many jurisdictions are switching from punch-card systems to more advanced Marksense or direct recording electronic systems.

Direct Recording Electronic
This is the most recent device in voting system evolution. It is essentially an electronic implementation of the mechanical lever system. As with the lever system, there is no ballot. The possible choices are presented to the voter on the front of the machine. The voter enters choices directly into electronic storage using a touch screen, push buttons or similar device. The voter's choices are stored in these machines on a memory cartridge, diskette or smart card. Like Marksense, the use of direct recording electronic systems is on the rise.

Source: Federal Election Commission

Danaher Controls
Gurnee, Ill.

Diversified Dynamics Inc.
Richmond, Va.

Election Systems and Software Inc.
Omaha, Neb.

Fidlar & Chambers Co.
Rock Island, Ill.

Global Election System Inc.
McKinney, Texas

Hart InterCivic Inc.
Austin, Texas

MicroVote Corp.

Sequoia Pacific Voting Equipment Inc.
Hayward, Calif.

Shoup Voting Systems Inc.
Quakertown, Pa.

Unilect Corp.
Dublin, Calif.

Sources: FEC and NASED

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