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Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert announced Tuesday that the state has awarded a contract worth about $27 million to Ohio-based Diebold Election Systems, which also runs statewide voting equipment for Georgia, Maryland, Alaska and Arizona.

The new voting booths, resembling and responding like many ATMs, will be in precincts throughout the state by June 2006, though some cities may try them out this November to "work out the bugs," Herbert said.

Tuesday's announcement ends a two-year hunt to replace the antiquated punch-ballot system, and brings Utah in compliance with the Help America Vote Act of 2002, a federal mandate that followed the voting controversy in Florida during the 2000 presidential race.

The state now will enter negotiations with Diebold and county officials to identify the exact number of new voting booths to buy. Each booth costs $3,150. The original state estimate called for 7,500 machines. The company says 6,800 would do the job.

The booths allow voters to go back and change their selections. They also notify voters if they pick two candidates in the same category or skip a race.

"This raises the bar significantly by almost eliminating voter error," Herbert said.

The new system should produce election results much faster. Each electronic booth keeps a running count, negating the need for counting machines. The voting booths produce a computer printout with a bar code to use in cases of a recount or when questions arise over the accuracy of the electronic count. Each voter can examine the accuracy of their votes on the printout, which is displayed under a piece of glass. This paper audit is in response to a law the Legislature passed last session.

Disabled voters also will find the booths more accessible, especially the blind.

Through headphones, blind voters can listen to their options and select their candidates through a key pad.

Bill Gibson can't wait to vote by himself for the first time. Gibson, who works for the state Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, has been blind since birth.

His wife or an election judge has always helped him vote and he doesn't like how quiet his precinct becomes when he starts voicing his choices.

"People are naturally kind of nosy. They like to know how their neighbors are voting," said Gibson, 53, who helped select the Diebold equipment. "To be able to go in and cast a ballot on my own is a really exciting thing."

But computerized voting machines, generally, and Diebold, specifically, have their detractors.

A computer science professor from Johns Hopkins University has claimed Diebold uses software that is easy to hack into, a claim the company rejects. Last year, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry complained about Diebold Chief Executive Officer Walden O'Dell's fund-raising for President Bush, according to Bloomberg News.

Utahn Clarity Sanderson's skepticism is more broadly focused. She tried the new voting booths at a mock election in March, and while she agrees they are "very easy to use and extremely user friendly," she distrusts the technology.

"I think it is wrong to have our elections being run by a corporation," she said. "It takes away all transparency in our elections."

Sanderson, who is the co-vice chairwoman of the Utah Democratic Progressive Caucus, will continue to vote, but by absentee paper ballot.

State Elections Director Michael Cragun said security is not a legitimate concern.

"We are confident that this vender will provide us with what we need," he said.

Cragun anticipates the state will impose some sort of spot-audits to ensure accuracy, but no such policy is now in place.

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