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Orange County

County Launches Screen Tests for E-Voting Machines

Elections: Residents can try out three competing devices. Board's pick goes online in 2004.


Almost 100 senior citizens turned out Wednesday to cast their ballots for the county's next voting machine, helping push Orange County into the electronic voting age.

At the fourth meeting organized by county election officials, residents at Leisure World in Laguna Woods tested the dials, headphones and touch screens. For the next three weeks, residents can test the machines at public meetings around the county before the Board of Supervisors makes a decision in November.

The Leisure World residents, many of whom were longtime voters, told election officials what they thought of the machines, which allow voting in five languages and can be used by disabled voters.

Some were impressed with the technology. Others wondered what all the fuss was about.

"Voting is the only way we have of putting our two cents in the system," said Jean Smith, 70, who volunteered to count ballots during the 1960 presidential election, which John F. Kennedy won, and has missed only one election in her life.

But her husband, Vern Smith, 74, found the price of the electronic units, which range from $2,250 to $3,500, too steep.

"Except for the speed in counting, I don't see a thing wrong with the old system," he said.

"Compared to the cost of wars, this is chicken feed," countered Jim Murphy, an election precinct inspector for more than 10 years. More important, he said, is that "Americans want their elections to be truthful."

After careful inspection and detailed questioning of the three vendors, Murphy concluded that the electronic voting machines would not be susceptible to ballot tampering.

The three machines under consideration are each about the size of a briefcase, with images depicting ballot pages.

Instead of punching a hole next to the name of a candidate, voters touch the candidate's name, either with their finger or a voting tool before electronically flipping to the next page.

Visually impaired voters can use the optional headsets.

The technology will speed up ballot counting and reduce errors, the companies' representatives say.

Overall, the three units fared well with residents. Most preferred the touch-screen versions over the one with dials.

The text was readable and the electronic ballot pages were intuitive, they said.

The county has set aside $22 million to buy the system, but Steven Rodermund, chief deputy registrar of voters, said that figure could rise.

While Registrar of Voters Rosalyn Lever initially was leery of the electronic-voting technology, she said she's now "quite excited" about it and has confidence in the selection process.

Bob Pinzler, a consultant hired by the county to manage the three-week test, said the Asian-language versions have had glitches. Some early literal translations of Asian languages were garbled, and character languages such as Chinese may not be legible on the computer screens, he said.

Test sessions for Latino and Asian American residents are scheduled in Santa Ana and Westminster next week.

Lever also shares the concerns of some of the 7,500 election workers about the machines' ease of use, such as their weight and portability, especially because many poll workers are senior citizens.

By the March 2004 primary, the county plans to place 9,000 electronic voting machines in the 1,700 polling places for the county's 1.3 million registered voters.

While Orange County is not among the nine California counties that were ordered by a federal judge to discard punch cards by the 2004 presidential election, its election officials said they are simply being forward-thinking by switching to paperless elections.

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