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Officials have $30 million to change state's election machines


Ben Fenwick March 19th, 2009

In the coming year or so, the state of Oklahoma may say goodbye to its dear, old voting machines that have served it since the late 1980s, the Oklahoma Election Board secretary said. As of la...

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In the coming year or so, the state of Oklahoma may say goodbye to its dear, old voting machines that have served it since the late 1980s, the Oklahoma Election Board secretary said.

As of last month, secretary Paul Ziriax said Oklahoma has received up to $30 million in federal grants to change its voting system " but nobody to this point has really wanted to change it, he said.

"The state of Oklahoma received federal grants as a part of the Help America Vote Act in 2002, and is one of the few remaining states to use that money to purchase new election systems," Ziriax said. "One of the reasons we haven't yet I think is because our current system is doing so well."

However, that system is finally starting to feel its age, he said.

"It's served us very well, but if you are dealing with a computer system from the late '80s or early '90s, you can imagine the improvements," he said. "The voting machines themselves are only part of the system. The entire computer network that backs up the system, that reads the digital information that is collected on those ballot boxes, is based on 1980s technology. Someone's BlackBerry or iPhone has more computing power than the system that's running the state election system right now."

PAPER BALLOT
One thing that won't change, Ziriax said, is the paper ballot.

"Certainly, my goal is that any system we adopt has a paper ballot that is marked by voters, absolutely," he said. "We are primarily looking at the optical-scan models like the ones we've used in the past, just newer generations."

Doug Sanderson, secretary of the Oklahoma County Election Board, said Oklahoma's reluctance to change helped the state avoid costly mistakes in recent so-called advances in voter technology. Specifically, Oklahoma passed on the whole touch-screen fad.

"Many of those counties (in other states) have trashed those and gone back to what we have," Sanderson said. "When the federal money was first made available a few years ago, I think the state election board was wise in waiting until we were certain of what we wanted. Many other states spent what they had on what they thought was the best system. The latest and the greatest ain't always best."

Oklahoma's system " in which a paper ballot is marked by a voter next to the name of the candidate for whom he or she is voting " creates an artifact of the actual vote being made and can be hand-counted if necessary, Sanderson said.

"What happened with the touch-screen voting is that everybody went out and got those, then (voters) said, 'Okay, where's the ballot? Where's the ballot verification? There's nothing there.' So then they said, 'Okay, we can modify them to print out a copy to show what you vote.' But that's still not the ballot. That's just a copy of what you perhaps voted."

Ziriax said the machines could be changed by the next national election cycle.

"We are in the process of examining newer generations of the equipment we currently have," he said. "We hope to have a new system selected and in place, if not by the 2010 elections, then shortly thereafter in the year 2011." "Ben Fenwick

 
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