County looks at potentially buying new voting software

BUCKHANNON — New voting software could potentially consolidate the two primary methods of voting in Upshur County — via paper and electronic ballot — into one, the Upshur County Clerk said recently.

Carol Smith said a new voting system sold by the Omaha, Nebraska-based company, Election Systems and Software, would offer an array of advantages to Upshur County voters if the Upshur County Commission chooses to purchase it — a decision that won’t be made until after Jan. 1, 2018.

The system, which costs about $400,000, would ultimately save time and money; increase voter confidence; and ensure poll workers comply with new legislation that went into effect June 9, 2016. That legislation — House Bill 4013 — will require every voter to show identification at the polls on or after Jan. 1, 2018, Smith said.

The new software is comprised of a universal voting system known as ExpressVote and the DS200, a precinct scanner and vote tabulator, Smith and commissioners learned when West Virginia and Tennessee account manager, Cam Wilson, stopped in the Upshur County Courthouse Nov. 16 to demo the machine.

The new electronic system allows voters to review their choices on screen and subsequently print out their completed ballots prior to casting their vote, Smith said.

“They have the advantage of being just like your electronic machines,” Smith told The Record Delta in a recent interview. “The ballot picture is on the screen, and then you just pick who you want to vote for and tell it to print, and the only thing that prints is the name of the office and the person you voted for. If you didn’t vote for someone, it says it was blank.”

If voters make a mistake on the computer screen — such as forgetting to vote for a particular office or voting for someone they didn’t intend to — they can simply turn over their ballot to a poll worker, who will “void it, spoil” and issue the person another one, Smith said.

“You can then try again, and it’s not tabulated, it’s not counted, unlike with the electronic machines where once you hit confirm, it’s done. It’s too late,” she explained. “Once you print it, you still have the option of looking at it and saying, ‘did I really want to vote for that?’ and you can just void it and go on.”

The double-verification process – both on screen and on printed paper – will also likely increase voter confidence because it eliminates the need for county clerk’s office workers to attempt to decipher paper ballots that aren’t clearly marked.

“On election night, we spend a lot of time with the resolution tables trying to determine what the voter intent was,” Smith said. “People will circle everything as opposed to filling in the oval. They’ve actually drawn a line around the oval. Sometimes, you have no idea, so you’re better off to give someone an under-vote when you don’t know what the intent was, and I think this would stop that.”

Another plus of the new system is that the county won’t spend money on purchasing paper ballots it doesn’t need, Smith said.

“We are a dual system currently — we have paper and we have electronic — but 75 percent of the people who vote, vote on electronic machines,” Smith said. “They’ll wait in line to vote on the electronic machines, and that’s great, but we only have one per precinct, and we still have to order 110 percent of the number of ballots for registered voters, so what this does, is then you throw them away every election because you don’t use them. You use maybe 25 percent of the 35 percent of the people who vote.”

Smith said the total cost of paper ballots varies, but in May 2016, it was $25,000 and in November 2016, it added up to $17,000. If the county purchases the new ES&S system, it would still be required to order enough paper ballots for 110 percent of registered voters — but only at first. In subsequent elections, unused ballots can be reused because they’re blank.

“So, you’re still going to have to order 110 percent of ballots, but they’re blank so what that means is that you can reuse those for the next election,” Smith said. “You don’t have to throw them away because they’re reusable.”

Each blank ballot has a seven-year shelf-life, according to Wilson.

The third major advantage of the system is that it also comes with an electronic poll book that poll workers will use to check in voters. That poll book will ensure poll workers follow new protocol going into effect at the start of 2018 requiring all voters to present identification prior to voting.

“The biggest advantage of the system is it’s going to help everyone stick to the rules because everyone has to show ID or it won’t let them proceed,” Smith said.

In conjunction with the passage of the voter ID legislation, the state Legislature has provided a way for voters who don’t have official identification to obtain it.

“You can just come into our office, get your picture taken and have what they’re actually just calling a voter identification photo, and the only thing it can be used for is for you to go to the polls on Election Day and vote,” Smith explained. “It’s not supposed to be used for any other type of identification.”

Aside from the special voter ID that’s being issued by county clerks’ offices, there are 20 other forms of identification that will be accepted at polls, such as utility bills, Smith said.

“Whatever it is, it must have a current and correct physical address,” Smith said. “You can even use poll worker knowledge, so if you, as a poll worker, have known someone for longer than six months, you can put it on there that it was poll worker knowledge … and if you, the poll worker, doesn’t know them, but someone over the age of 18 knows them and has known them for six months, they can actually sign an affidavit saying that’s who they are.”

Smith’s not sure just how effective the new legislation will prove to be, given its flexibility. 

“They have made it so relaxed that I’m not sure what purpose it serves,” Smith said, “because who’s to say I’ve known you for six months?”

Concerning the new voter system, Smith said she hopes commissioners decide to approve the purchase of the machine, which notably complies with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

“The ease of it for people is great,” she said. “You can make the screen bigger and brighter and they have headphones available. I think what you gain in confidence is worth the money you’re going to spend in it.”

In related news, Smith has filed pre-candidacy papers to run for the unexpired term of county clerk in the 2018 election. Following the death of former county clerk Debbie Thacker Wilfongin December 2016, the commission named Smith as permanent interim county clerk through the November 2018 election, according to a previous Record Delta article.

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