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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Lt. Gov. Olene Walker has come up with a plan to replace Utah's punch-card ballot machines -- the equipment that proved so troublesome when Florida was counting its 2000 presidential election returns.
Walker says the state should switch to electronic ballot terminals, but is waiting for manufacturers to perfect those machines and drop prices before deciding which model to buy.
Her plan, using $28 million in federal funding made available after the Florida fiasco, was released Monday for 30 days of public comment. The state would use the federal and its own money to subsidize the cost of machines for counties.
"I keep telling people we never had a problem with our punch-ballot machines," Walker said in a briefing earlier this month for legislators.
Walker said Wednesday that a stock of punch cards used by Salt Lake County in 1998 "left a lot of hanging chads, but it wasn't a problem as famous as Florida's.
"It wasn't a close election so it didn't become a focus, but they had to bring in a lot of people to clean up the chads," she said.
Utah, which uses a greater percentage of punch-card ballot machines than any other state, should take the federal funding and dump the old machines, she said.
Walker said early voting would ease demand on election day and lower the number of electronic terminals Utah and counties would have to buy. Other states, she said, allow voters to cast their ballots as many as 10 days before election day.
Walker's advisory committee is preparing early-voting legislation for debate by the Legislature next January.
The Legislature also will decide whether to let counties transmit voting results from the new machines over the Internet, raising concerns about security or tampering, or record each machine's counts on computer disks or electronic chips.
Walker's plan also involves setting up a statewide voter registration database to instantly process new registrations and address changes.
Utah may need as many as 7,246 new ballot machines.
When Walker began shopping, electronic ballot terminals with portable booths were going for up to $7,000 apiece, but the price is dropping fast. Walker figures Utah can hold out and get better models for $2,500 each.
The terminals also are getting lighter, she said. One downside is the computer equipment has to be carefully stored, protected from dust or high temperatures.
"You can't just throw them in a closet," she said.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)