In compliance with the Help America Vote Act, Washtenaw County has upgraded its voting technologies to ensure accurate vote tabulations and limit errors during elections.

Every community in Washtenaw county has switched to optical scanners, replacing more outdated voting apparatuses. The system works like a Scantron; voters complete a ballot and feed it into a machine that tallies the votes. When the polls close, election officials retain the paper ballots in case they are needed for a recount.

Under the Help America Vote Act of 2002, the federal government is funding a required update of voting technologies within all states. HAVA phased out punch-card and hand-counted ballots, two older forms of voting technology. Michigan is in the midst of transitioning to optical scanners, a technology chosen by Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land in 2003. The plan calls for the entire state to transition to one uniform technology – optical scanners – by 2006.

Derrick Jackson, the director of elections for Washtenaw County, said the only problem with the machines has been the occasional paper jam.

Jackson emphasized the importance of these technologies in ensuring the accuracy of the vote count.

“If you use the machine wrong, the machine spits (the ballot) out and tells you exactly what you did wrong,” he said. “(Voters) know for sure now if (their) ballot was counted or not counted.”

Not all counties in Michigan have transitioned so smoothly. In Wayne County, the selection of a vendor that will supply the optical scanners has led to a disagreement between the county clerk and the city of Detroit. While the county clerk’s office has recommended the machines produced by Election Systems and Software, Detroit has requested machines made by Sequoia Voting Systems, another approved vendor.

Gloria Williams, Detroit’s director of elections, said the ES&S machines are bulky and inaccurate.

“If I put the ballot through the machine five times, I might get three different answers,” she said.

She also said the ES&S ballots may not be large enough to allow for a long list of candidates, leading to potential problems with voters casting multiple ballots.

“(Voters) would be discouraged, and it would be a logistical nightmare for election workers,” she said. “I can’t imagine doing a recount with two ballots per voter.”

The Secretary of State’s spokesman Ken Silfven said Wayne County’s situation is unusual.

“(In) virtually every other county, it’s a uniform vendor,” he said.

The state’s plan grants authority to the county to select a vendor, but Silfven said the process is supposed to be a partnership between county and city governments.

“The whole process is designed to promote and encourage involvement within the county,” he said.

The question remains of how the new technologies, once in place, will be updated – HAVA doesn’t guarantee additional funding. Michael Traugott, a professor of communication studies and author of a recent study on voting technologies, pointed out the difference between computerized technology and older lever machines is the need for constant updates.

“Once you use computers and software, this technology is going to be changing all the time,” he said. “Congress thinks of this as a one-time commitment. The pressure will grow for (Congress) to (fund future upgrades), but there’s no guarantee that they would step in again.”

The Secretary of State will be taking public comment on the state’s plan for one more week.

When choosing a new voting technology, Land rejected direct recording electronic voting system, an apparatus that allows citizens to vote with a touch-screen computer. Silfven said there are many problems with the DRE. He said Land had concerns over the system’s lack of a paper trail in the case of a recount.

Traugott echoed Land’s concerns.

“The DRE machines are supposed to eventually be able to print a receipt that can be deposited for recount, but there’s been a fair number of problems,” he said.

Traugott’s study examined the effectiveness of voting technologies in Michigan and Florida during the 2000 and 2004 elections. Traugott said Michigan’s voting technologies were centralized, with the state mandating optical scanners in every county. Florida – on the other hand – will use a combination of optical scanners and DRE machines.

Silfven said using only one technology makes the voting process easier and more uniform for voters.

“When you just have one system, it’s easier for the state to conduct voter education outreach because you can focus on that one system.”

In looking at these technologies, Traugott’s study did not detect any negative side-effects of either system.

“If people didn’t like the technology, it could produce lower levels of turnout,” Traugott said. “We don’t seem to detect that yet.”

Traugott did find that as spoiled votes declined with the transition to better technologies, Democratic candidates benefited more than Republicans.

“That wouldn’t be unexpected because of who we know tends to associate with the parties and who would tend to be more confused at the polling place,” he said, referring to the low education and income levels of some Democratic supporters. “The new technology eliminates some of (this confusion).”

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