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Electronic voting machines becoming obsolete

Published September 9, 2013 10:34 am

Elections • As devices break down, trends include casting ballots by mail.
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How will voters cast ballots in the future?

"That is the million-dollar question when I meet with other election officers and directors," said Utah Elections Director Mark Thomas.

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), making available billions of dollars in funding for states to purchase electronic voting machines — then new and controversial technology aimed at eliminating a repeat of the hanging-chad debacle of the 2000 presidential election.

"The manufacturer is no longer building them," Thomas said of the 7,500 electronic machines the state purchased with its $28 million.

"The parts will get scarce, and the technology will become obsolete. We'll work through that as best and as long as we can, but at some point we'll have to do something different."

That "something different" has yet to be clearly defined — but as current machines age out of use, counties and states will be on the hook to devise and fund their own changes.

"Money is a big driver," Thomas said. "We had HAVA money a decade ago, but that has since dried up.

"We wish we had a crystal ball," he added.

In Utah's most populous county, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen expects its 3,100 electronic voting machines "to meet their demise over the next several years."

"We're hoping we can get another five years, at least through the presidential election of 2016," Swensen said. "I don't know beyond that."

After acquiring electronic voting machines in 2005, Salt Lake County had to build a high-security warehouse to store the equipment.

Swensen views today's trends in voting technology as paper-based, with more and more jurisdictions moving toward vote-by-mail ballots that can be tallied by optical scanners.

Salt Lake County currently has 10 such scanners, and in last year's presidential election, 103,000 voters cast paper ballots.

"It's a very labor-intensive process to feed them through these scanners, so we're hoping to get a couple of the high-speed readers to get us through the next few years," Swensen said.

This year, two cities in Salt Lake County — Cottonwood Heights and West Jordan — held all vote-by-mail primary elections, in part to boost voter turnout. The ballots are sent out 28 days before Election Day, giving voters time to study candidates and issues.

"They love it," Swensen said of the feedback she's received. "They don't have to make up their minds quickly because someone is standing in line behind them."

Once filled out, the ballots can be mailed or dropped off at an early voting location. Some chose to personally hand in their vote-by-mail ballots on Election Day, Swen­sen said, just to experience polling-place camaraderie.

According to Swensen, Salt Lake County has 486,000 active registered voters, of which 140,000 have enrolled in the permanent vote-by-mail program.

Davis County — Utah's third most populous — is planning to host a hybrid election in 2014, said Clerk/Auditor Steve Rawlings, where every registered voter will receive a vote-by-mail ballot, but there also will be eight polling sites scattered throughout the county for people to vote electronically if they choose.

Davis County currently has about 933 electronic voting machines, Rawlings said

"Vote by mail might not be a short-term thing, but down the road it might not be the process of choice," he said.

"I think it will move from machines to vote by mail to Internet," Rawlings said. "It's gotta be the thing of the future because of the ultimate cost savings and ease of voting."

In November 2011, Oregon first used iPads to allow people with disabilities to vote in their homes or extended-care facilities. Those ballots were then printed on portable wireless printers and either mailed or dropped off at election sites.

Thomas, Utah's election director, predicts such trends will grow and that software will soon supersede hardware in importance.

"It wouldn't matter what hardware you used. It could be your iPad or phone," Thomas said. "Having gone through the last 10 years and spent $28 million on machines, and then have it go obsolete … people start looking at software-based solutions where you don't have warehouses full of equipment."


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