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Justin Cook | The Roanoke Times November 3, 2009 A soldier votes at Luther Lutheran Church in Blacksburg.
Sunday, May 19, 2013
Some Montgomery County voters will go back to the future when they cast ballots in the June 11 Democratic Party primary.
Voters in Montgomery Precinct F-1 will use paper ballots when they step into the booths at Luther Memorial Lutheran Church in Blacksburg, but not in an old-school way. They will feed their marked ballots into a Unisyn OVO optical scan voting machine, a new piece of equipment scheduled to be phased in at other Montgomery precincts in time for the 2016 presidential election.
The introduction of optical scan machines, which Montgomery first used for absentee voting last fall, also begins the gradual elimination of less reliable touch-screen technology that has been maligned nationwide. The General Assembly passed legislation in 2007 to prohibit localities from purchasing new direct record electronic (DRE) machines, which are touch-screen devices, when the old ones wear out. But, as they often do, lawmakers left it to localities to find the money to comply with the mandate.
Montgomery is just beginning its replacement cycle. The Unisyn OVO machines cost about $6,000 each. Plans call for the county to purchase 12 per year over the next three years. Montgomery County Registrar Randy Wertz said the transition will require some adjustments for transportation and security. But no tears should be shed when the last of the touch-screen machines is retired. The new system should be better for voters and for election officials.
If they function as planned, the new machines will marry the need for fast, reliable technology with a legitimate demand for a paper trail. That should give voters greater confidence in the integrity of their elections.
The Unisyn OVO machine scans the paper ballots and stores them in a secure, internal bin so they can be audited, if necessary. The machine also preserves an image of the ballot that can be reproduced if the paper copy is damaged.
The greatest benefit voters will derive from the new machines is reasonable assurance that their ballots will be properly cast and accurately counted — and, perhaps, recounted.
If a voter fails to clearly mark a ballot, or marks it for too many candidates, the optical scan machine will kick it back, according to Montgomery election officials. If necessary, the voter can request a new ballot and the discarded one will be marked as “spoiled” and preserved as part of the election’s records.
“Even if they do not vote for a particular race or referendum, the machine will not process the ballot until the voter acknowledges they have marked the ballot correctly and as they wanted it marked,” Wertz noted in an email.
The DRE touch-screen devices leave no paper trail for judges and election officials to examine in recount proceedings. That has reduced recounts to little more than retabulations of results compiled from voting machines. The judges who supervised two notable recounts in the past decade have taken different approaches to reviewing optical scan ballots.
In the closest statewide election in Virginia history, only a few paper ballots were closely re-examined during a recount. In 2005, Republican Bob McDonnell defeated Democrat Creigh Deeds for attorney general by a mere 360 votes out of 1.9 million cast. In a court-supervised recount, judges denied Deeds’ request to run all paper-based ballots — more than 500,000 of them — through processing machines. Deeds’ lawyers argued that a first run of optical-scan and punch-card ballots may not have recorded every vote. The judges allowed hand recounts of optical-scan ballots in only 10 precincts where the machines failed to process some ballots.
In the 2008 recount of the 5th District congressional contest between Democrat Tom Perriello and Republican Virgil Goode, judges ordered that all optical scan ballots be run through the machines a second time. Those that could not be read by the machines were counted by hand.
If Montgomery’s new optical scan system works as planned, a voter’s ballot should be processed correctly the first time.
And if the ballot requires closer scrutiny in a recount, judges and election officials should not have to guess to determine the voter’s intent.
Montgomery County has had its problems with election administration in recent years. But the transition to optical scan machines should make voters more confident in the process.
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