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Utah's paper ballots may be voted out

Proposed switch to machines would be costly

Thanks to the Florida ballot scandal in the 2000 U.S. presidential election, Utah voters may see a massive overhaul of how they cast their votes.

Utah is planning to apply for up to $28 million from the federal government to make changes across the state by 2006.

At the heart of the change is the conversion from punch card ballots to touch-pad voting systems that operate much like an automatic teller machine where voters work off a computer screen ballot.

The machines cost several thousand dollars each — and with multiple machines at every polling location — the cost adds up.

"When you have between 500,000 and 600,000 registered voters like Salt Lake County does, you are talking about a huge investment," said Nick Floros, Salt Lake County chief deputy clerk. "We have more than 700 polling locations and with five machines at each location — that is a lot of machines."

Ten vendors of a variety of electronic voting equipment did a show and tell of sorts for the public and election officials Thursday at the state Capitol.

It was the first attempt to give residents, election officials and lawmakers a chance to test drive the new technology and get early feedback about what type of system is best suited for Utah.

By 2004, state elections director Amy Naccarato said, the goal is to have several machines in "test" precincts to see how they perform in elections.

Over the next year, the state plans to acquire the machines and begin the process for having them in place and ready to operate by 2006.

The phase-in period will allow election judges and others to be trained and to mount a public education program for voters.

"This is not just about setting up a computer in a grocery store and hoping people will come by to use it," Naccarato said. "We are talking about a complete overhaul that is huge."

The lieutenant governor's office formed a statewide election committee to implement compliance with the federal election reforms passed in October.

Called the Help America Vote Act, the 161-page law includes a mandate for each precinct to have specially-designed machines to facilitate voting by people with disabilities. Blind voters can have a friend or relative help them cast their ballots.

Fallout from the controversial Bush-Gore showdown in Florida precipitated the reforms, including the incentive to move away from punch card ballots.

In Utah, 23 of its 29 counties have that system in place, but few counties have experienced any problems over the years.

"Utah has not had a problem with its punch cards," said Carbon County Clerk-Auditor Robert Pero. "I would be surprised if you could find a problem in any county. "

Florida election officials had not cleaned their machines in eight years, while Pero said it is standard for the cleaning to be done here after every election.

"I do it myself."

Pero, who sits on the statewide committee representing rural interests, has concerns that Utah and its counties aren't prepared financially for the big changes ahead.

Pero, Naccarato and Lt. Gov. Olene Walker just returned from a trip to Georgia to inspect its voting system, where he said the new conversion is working well.

"We went to in excess of 10 polling places, and I didn't hear a single complaint. But their state spent millions of dollars educating the public on the change."

While the technology is wonderful, Pero said the state has to be prepared to financially help counties implement the change.

"No matter what we do here, it is going to be a huge expense. If we don't have the money to do it right, we shouldn't do it at all. "

Weber County Clerk Linda Lunceford said an analysis there showed the county would have to purchase an estimated 600 machines, replace its voting booths and come up with additional storage space.

"We've all voiced the same concern about the amount of money that will be available at the local level. If this is something that we decide needs to happen, the state has to find a way to pay for it."

Also problematic is the fact that punch card machines would still have to be retained to count the ballots of absentee voters, a population of voters that Lunceford said is growing each year in Utah.

"There has to be some creative financing associated with it," she said. "This would be a horrendous burden to expect voters to bear."