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County's punch card ballots being punched out

Yesterday may have been one of the last times Island County voters will punch a ballot card, thanks to a $260,000 federal package earmarked for polling updates.

In the wake of the 2000 Florida polling debacle — where “hanging chads” on old-fashioned butterfly ballots held up the national election for weeks — President Bush last Tuesday authorized a $3.9 billion upgrade of antiquated voting systems, with $8.7 million set to go to this state.

Island County is in line to receive $260,000 to start fixing what is considered by many an outdated system, through the installation of either an optical-scan voting or touch-screen voting system.

Counties are being allocated $4,000 for each precinct, and Island County has 65 precincts. It is hoped that new systems will be up and running for the 2004 general election.

Although no particular problems have been reported in Island County, or the other 14 of the state’s 39 counties that still use punch-ballot technology, the Held America Vote Act money is being heralded as a much-needed improvement.

Island County Auditor Suzanne Sinclair said Monday she’s looking forward to implementing the new technology, though she pointed out that no funds have yet been appropriated by Congress.

“It’s an excellent thing for the county,” Sinclair said. “If we’re required to change systems, and provide touch screen or some other system, that’s a lot of money. The county is not in a financial position to provide that.”

Sinclair said she’s already contacted her congressional delegation to “make sure the money’s appropriated,” and she urged local voters to do the same thing.

Any technical changes to polling sites will have no impact on the current distribution of mail-in ballots, Sinclair said. The only change will be in the system used by voters at polling sites, and whether the votes are tallied at the precinct level or centrally.

Punch-card counties will have two primary means to implement changes: an optical-scan system in which voters pencil in the box by the candidate of their choice, or a touch-screen system that operates something like an ATM machine, allowing voters to touch the screen to indicate their choice.

Snohomish County has adopted a touch-screen method. The other non punch-card counties in the state use the optical scan system.

Punch-card voting, which was first brought to the state in the 1960s and is now seen as archaic technology, Secretary of State Sam Reed said recently.

Sinclair said a few questions still remain to be answered regarding implementing the new technology, though she added that the touch-screen technology currently is the more expensive of the two.

“There’s still a lot to find out,” Sinclair said.

Regardless of which system the county eventually chooses, Sinclair said poll workers and voters will need to be brought up to date. She added that she is planning on having prototype booths available for testing and practice at local events such as the Island County Fair.

Sinclair said some time will be needed to “get the process to be familiar” with local voters. “As Florida amply demonstrated, the equipment didn’t make any difference if you don’t take care of the process,” she added.

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