April 10, 2003
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Push buttons vie for punch-card vote

When Yellow Springs voters go to the polls on May 6 for a special election on natural gas aggregation, they will see something new: an electronic voting machine, which the Greene County Board of Elections will be testing.

So while five other elections in the county will be decided through the current system that uses punch-card ballots, Yellow Springs residents will get to try an electronic push-button system. No paper ballots or possible hanging chads, just a few microchips to record the votes.

A 2002 federal law, the Help America Vote Act, requires state governments to replace punch-card voting systems. Ohio hopes to implement a new system by the presidential election in 2004.

While the Ohio government is still deciding what systems the states’ 88 counties may use, the Greene County Board of Elections is using next month’s election to test-drive one system, MicroVote Infinity, manufactured by MicroVote Corporation in Indianapolis.

Carole Garman, the director of the local Board of Elections, said that the board chose to try the system in Yellow Springs because the ballot issue here is not controversial, the village has just four precincts and its polling places — the Bryan Community Center and the First Presbyterian Church — are close together.

“We thought it would be a good chance to see how the poll workers and the public both feel about this system,” she said in an interview at the board office last Friday.

The board also thought that local residents would be open to trying something new, Garman said. Yellow Springs is a “good test market for us,” she said.

Five other issues will be decided on May 6, two deregulation issues in Bellbrook, a street and highway levy and a school levy in Beavercreek and a school bond issue in Sugarcreek. All five will use the punch-card ballots normally used by the Greene County board.

In Yellow Springs, voters will vote on Issue 4, which would give the Village the authority to negotiate natural gas prices on behalf of local customers, as part of the state’s natural gas deregulation program. If the issue is approved, the Village will serve as a governmental aggregator and negotiate rates with outside suppliers, and will create an “opt-out aggregation” program, so all local residents would automatically be enrolled in the Village’s buying group.

Residents, however, will have the option to opt out of the Village’s program. Those residents will then be able to choose their own natural gas supplier. Anyone enrolled in the Village’s buying group will be allowed to drop out every two years without paying a fee.

Even if the Village gets into the natural gas business, it will not have to provide infrastructure or billing services. Vectren will continue to maintain the natural gas lines in town and bill Yellow Springs residents for their natural gas.

The Village would work with AMPO, Inc., an affiliate of American Municipal Power of Ohio, the Village’s wholesale electricity supplier, to negotiate supply contracts. Village and AMPO officials have said that the Village would likely be able to negotiate a better rate for natural gas than individual citizens.

The electronic system that the county will use on May 6 is similar to the punch-card system, except it does not involve paper ballots. After voters sign in at the polls, a poll worker will accompany each voter to a booth and turn on the unit for the voter, and then walk away. Voters will not be given cards on which to cast a vote.

Once the machine is turned on, voters will see an instruction screen, the first of three screens. The second screen contains the actual ballot issue.

Like punch-card ballots, the electronic unit will display the ballot language, giving voters a chance to vote yes or no on the issue. But instead of punching a card with a pin, voters will push a button to cast a vote. The letter “X” will appear next to each vote on the screen.

After voters mark their choice, the machine will display a third screen that shows how each voter intends to vote. (The machine will also alert a voter if he does not cast a vote.) Voters then officially cast their votes by hitting a red button on the right side of the machine.

The machines will internally record the votes. After the polls close, the machines will print out the votes, giving the Board of Elections a paper trail of the results. The votes also will be electronically recorded on a card about the size of a hotel key. The cards, paper results and machines will be delivered to the board office, where election officials will officially tally the results.

Dwayne A. Rapp, vice president of TRIAD Governmental Systems Inc., the Xenia business that oversees Greene County’s voter registration and tabulating systems, said that the push-button system does not represent “a flamboyant change” in the way people vote. Voting “should be as simple as it was” in previous elections, he said.

TRIAD personnel and Board of Elections officials will be in Yellow Springs on Election Day to monitor how the voting system works. Poll managers and poll workers will receive training before the election, Garman said.

Those voting absentee will also get to participate in the test run. The board has several electronic machines set up in its office for people who vote in person before May 6. Those who request ballots by mail will receive scan-tron-like ballots, similar to a lottery form, on which they will fill in their vote on oval bubbles.

Beverly Hogue, a Board of Elections official who supervises absentee voting, said last week that three people, including herself, have voted on the machines, as absentee voters. The other two voters thought the system was easy to manage, Hogue said.

In February, the Madison County Board of Elections used MicroVote Infinity machines in a special election for a school levy for the Madison Plains Local School District. Sally Asper, the director of the Madison Board of Elections, said that the voting system was “absolutely wonderful” and that the election went “very well.” Asper said that the system reduced the time it took citizens to vote and that tallying the results of the election was “simple” and less time-consuming than counting ballots.

Rapp, whose father in 1968 started the family-run business, which today manages 52 county ballot-counting or voter registration systems, said that a number of different electronic voting systems are available, but he likes the Infinity push-button system because it’s simple to use and the buttons allow voters to physically feel like they’re casting a ballot.

Garman and Rapp said that the Infinity models cost about $2,500 to $3,000 a unit. They estimated it could cost an estimated $2 million to upgrade the entire county. The Board of Elections would need to purchase a minimum of 700 units. The federal government is supposed to fund the effort to upgrade the nation’s voting systems.

Once implemented, Garman and Rapp said, the electronic system would save the Board of Elections money, since the board would not have to purchase paper ballots. Plus, absentee ballots can be printed on-demand, cutting down on additional paper.

For more information on next month’s election and the push-button voting machine, call the Greene County Board of Elections, 562-7470.

—Robert Mihalek