County poised to approve e-voting 

Voters will come face to face with all-electronic voting machines in November, as elections officials move to streamline the county’s voting system and save millions in tax dollars.

The move to buy the new machines puts into effect a federal law known as the Helping America Vote and strict state regulations adopted in June that are intended to expand disabled voting access, including privacy.

To meet those new requirements, the county rented about 30 eSlate machines for use by the disabled during the June election. The test run proved so successful that officials decided to push ahead with an electronic conversion earlier than planned.

"Most of the voters had very positive things to say, particularly that the machines were easy to use," Chief Elections Officer Warren Slocum said. Poll workers and elections officials also liked the machines for their simple set up and easy troubleshooting, he said.

Supervisors are expected to approve funds for the conversion using $1.3 million in county funds, $4.6 million in state funds and $4.6 million in federal funds Tuesday, officials said. Elections officials had been waiting to make a purchase until machines they wanted to buy were approved by the state, and they previously had thought the purchase might not occur before next year.

"The good thing is that these [machines] will have a verified paper ballot, which is required by the state," said Courtenay Strickland Bhatia, CEO of the nonprofit VerifiedVoting.org in San Francisco. Whether the machines are successful will depend on how their paper ballot printers perform, Bhatia said.

The earlier-than-expected conversion is the result of the complexities of managing two voting systems, realized in June, plus the substantial savings that could be achieved through printing fewer ballots, Slocum said.

With record numbers of voters choosing absentee ballots, the new eSlate machines will save the county about $1.2 million in a four-year election cycle through less printing expenses. The county is required by state law to print and have on hand ballots for 75 percent of each precinct’s registered voters, which has resulted in tens of thousands of unused ballots being dumped into the recycling bin, Slocum said.

An estimated $100,000 worth of ballots had to be thrown away after the last election, when only 35 percent of voters turned out at the polls, Sarah Carrade of the county elections division said.

A total of 2,100 eSlate machines — including 525 equipped with special features for the blind or physically impaired — were purchased at a cost of about $10 million, Carrade said. That amount includes ongoing maintenance.

If approved by supervisors, November will be the county’s first all electronic election. Those who prefer to vote by paper will be able to vote via absentee ballots, which will be available at the polls, officials said. Voters will be able to choose among English, Spanish or Chinese on the eSlate machines and navigate among candidates and issues using a selection wheel, which is familiar to many from iPods, said Jackie Coates of the elections division. The machines also have alternate interfaces for those with physical disabilities.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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