Punching Out: Voting in the 21st century

The 2000 election debacle in Florida was the best thing that could have happened for voting technology. And there’s a good chance that by May, when City Council elections roll around, Charlottesville will be first in Virginia to use new state-of-the-art software-driven voting technology, according to electoral board chair Cheri Lewis.  

Way before the 2000 elections, Lewis was working on getting rid of the City’s punch-card ballots. “This is not a knee-jerk reaction,” she says, explaining that City Council had already set aside $125,000 for new voting machines. The biggest obstacle was the Commonwealth of Virginia, which hadn’t certified new voting technology in 10 years. 

Certification is not a simple process. Voting machines are subjected to stress tests to check out their software and durability: “They’re run over by trucks and thrown out of windows” is how Lewis describes it. Then the machines are sent to Georgia Tech to make sure they meet Virginia law. Next, they’re tested at an election in Virginia.   

Finally, there’s a financial certification to make sure the company selling them will be around to service the machines. “We don’t want the Enron of voting technology companies,” says Lewis.

Four vendors of the latest in voting gear assembled last week at the Omni to hawk their wares for Lewis as well as Charlottesville’s electoral board, city officials, and the League of Women Voters. Two of the four companies had just been certified by Virginia, even though touch-screen technology, invented in Urbanna, has been around for a while, according to Barbara Mosby, sales manager of Election Systems and Software. Mosby says her company’s iVotronic machines have been used in North Carolina since 1994, and that she “could do cartwheels” from having gained certification in Virginia. 

“Optical scan” and “direct record” are voting technology buzzwords. Robert Pickett of Diebold Election Systems demonstrated smart cards that are swiped “like an ATM” for the voting machine to scan. Hart Interactive rep Bryan Finney demonstrated his company’s “sippee-cup” technology for the disabled, explaining how “Christopher Reeve could sip and puff his vote.”

The Charlottesville contingent asked questions about over-voting, confidentiality, access for the disabled, and what happens when the power goes out.

Now the election board must decide which technology to use. “My feeling is we’ll meet and agree to test technology in May because there would be no expense to us and no obligation to buy,” says Lewis.  

And even with $125,000 tucked away by the City Council and another $35,000 or so the election board has in reserve, expense is still a concern. At $3,500 to $4,000 per machine, the equipment would cost Charlottesville about $245,000, says Lewis, not counting additional software and licensing costs.  

A couple of bills currently before Congress would help jurisdictions with punch-card ballots upgrade their technology. City registrar Sheri Iachetta particularly likes the House bill, which would provide $6,000 per precinct. Charlottesville’s nine precincts would be eligible for up to $54,000. “Word is that money will be available by the beginning of the summer,” says Iachetta.

But because not everyone is ditching punch-card technology, there might be life in the old machines. Lewis says that Virginia Beach may be interested in buying Charlottesville’s used punch-card counters and booths.  Another option is to have Charlottesville team up with another jurisdiction to get a better price on the new equipment.

Lewis’ mission is to get the new technology into the polls before the 2003 end of her election board term. Can she predict with certainty that City voters will be using the new equipment in the November elections? “Absolutely,” she says.


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