County Seeks Alternatives to State-planned Voting Machines

County Seeks Alternatives to State-planned Voting Machines

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PROVO, Utah (AP) -- Utah County commissioners are trying to find a way to comply with federal law without spending a lot on new voting machines.

"I'm a cheapskate," said Utah County Commissioner Jerry Grover.

Commissioners are looking for alternatives to direct-recording electronic voting and optical scan machines being considered by the state as replacements for punchcard machines.

Utah County has more than 1,000 punchcard voting machines.

The state is set to select a voting system from four machines -- optical scan and the ATM-like electronic systems -- offered by two companies, Diebold and Election Systems & Software.

The state's Election Equipment Selection Committee held its last public hearing on the machines Thursday after publicly demonstrating them in March. It will have a recommendation in a month or two, and Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert will make a decision on the recommendation shortly after.

Utah election officials set a plan in 2003 for election reform to comply with the federal Help America Vote Act.

The plan is to replace all punchcard voting machines in the state by 2006, but Grover isn't sure the county needs to follow the state plan to comply with the federal law, which requires the voting system be accessible for the disabled -- including the blind -- and in a manner that provides the same privacy and independence as for other voters.

Herbert said, "If Utah County says 'No, we're not going to do it,' then they can do their own system as long as it complies" with the federal law.

Grover said it might be possible to modify punchcard machines to comply with the law, or possibly just replace some of the old machines.

The federal government is providing the state $20.5 million to replace the machines and the final cost is expected to be $25 million or more. Counties are to pay the difference.

"They don't have the ability to pay," said Brent Gardner, executive director of the Utah Association of Counties.

Unless the Legislature can provide additional funding, it's going to be a big problem, he said.

Also, counties will have to look ahead at replacement costs in 10 years, which could be as high as $50 million.

Under accounting rules, counties will have to estimate the replacement costs of the electronic machines and start putting money aside every year, Grover said.

The punchcard machines are much less expensive to replace, he said.

"Our voting machines cost 100 bucks a unit, or whatever, and will last 40 years if you take care of them," Grover said.

Electronics need constant upgrades and parts, and counties will have to have extra machines on hand in case of malfunctions on election day, Herbert said.

And counties will also end up spending more on maintenance and storage, and Grover also is worried about possible power failures on election day.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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