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Utahns may foot bill for ballots

Florida's election debacle of 2000 could end up costing Utah taxpayers millions of dollars.

Following the hanging-chad problems of that election, congressional leaders passed the Help America Vote Act last year. It aimed to replace punch-card and lever systems with computerized ballots that would, ideally, accurately record votes and prevent mistakes such as over- or under-voting. As part of that act, they authorized $3.9 billion in funding, with the caveat that states have their systems operational by 2004.

So far, however, Congress has only authorized $1.5 billion, which is $500 million short of what the act had budgeted for this year. While the deadline has been pushed to 2006, state election officials and county clerks are starting to worry they will have to ask residents to fund the new systems.

Utah County Clerk/Auditor Kim Jackson said he is nervous the federal funding will fall short and the state, which is facing its own budget problems, will force counties to handle any funding shortfalls. That, in turn, would put clerks in the precarious position of asking for money from their own cash-strapped county commissions for a program required by the federal government.

"The whole thing comes down to how much money the county will have to find," Jackson said during a Friday planning meeting for state election reform at the state Capitol. "If the state and feds don't fund this, then we have to go back and raise taxes to make this work."

A draft budget from the State Planning Committee on Election Reform assumes $28 million in federal funding, with $15 million devoted to the purchase of new machines. Whether that number will actually cover the cost, however, is doubtful.

When Riverside County, Calif., purchased new touch-screen machines in 2000, it spent more than $14 million for 4,250 new machines, or about $3,250 per machine. With approximately 1,891 precincts in Utah, and three machines per precinct, cost for the machines would be $18.8 million at that price.

The cost of the machines is not the only hurdle, either. County clerks worried that three machines would not be sufficient, and also had a litany of other obstacles they might encounter, such as new voting booths, more expensive storage requirements, and increased movement and set-up costs. There are also maintenance and programming concerns, especially if the company supplying the machines requires the state to sign a long-term service contract.

Under the proposed budget, machines are estimated to cost $2,500, and the federal funds would cover all of two machines and $1,500 of the third machine. That would leave counties with $1,000 of the third machine per precinct, plus the full cost of any additional machines. In Salt Lake County, which has more than 700 precincts, County Clerk Sherrie Swensen estimated an average of five machines will be needed per precinct. Total cost: $4.2 million for the county.

While cost concerns are legitimate — especially if the already struggling federal funding does not come through — State Elections Director Amy Naccarato said that getting millions of dollars for a reformed voting system is very important. She urged clerks to focus on the improved access for disabled people to polling places, increased voter education, and, most importantly, the higher level of confidence in the elections process.

"To get $28 million pumped into state elections is incredible," she said. "It's a great opportunity to look at our whole elections system, to see if we really are serving the people."