http://www.kotv.com/news/local/story/?id=115104

 

Upgrades Sought In State Election System For 2008 Presidential Race

 

AP - 11/26/2006 2:10 PM - Updated 11/27/2006 8:06 PM

 

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) When Oklahoma voters make their choice for president in two years, state election officials hope they will be using a revamped election system that will report their vote far faster than the pace of the 2006 elections.

 

Oklahoma's statewide optical-scan voting system was made in 1990 and tabulates votes at a pace that was fast for its time. But Election Board Secretary Mike Clingman said the system's mainframe computer had a life span of only 10-12 years and is now past its prime.

 

``Our system is getting old,'' Clingman said. ``When we replace the computer we have to replace everything. It's a closed system.''

 

Oklahoma is the largest state in the nation that uses optical-scan equipment to conduct elections. Voters use felt-tipped pens to mark their choices on paper ballots that are read and recorded by optical scanners. At the end of the night, the results are fed electronically to state election officials.

 

Although slow by today's standards, the 16-year-old system tallied votes more quickly than some other states during the November 7th general election in which Oklahoma voters cast ballots for governor, other statewide offices, legislative races and a host of local and regional races.

 

Clingman said results were final for all races shortly after midnight, about five hours after the polls closed at 7 p.m. Votes were still being counted on the day after the election for races in some other states, including Virginia and Montana.

 

``We're in better shape than most states,'' he said.

 

But the Election Board computer tallies vote total one county at a time, slowing the overall process. A more technologically advanced system could allow Election Board workers to be online with all 77 county election boards simultaneously and tally votes as they are counted in each county.

 

``It could be tremendously faster,'' he said. Clingman said he hopes to have a new voting system in place in time for Oklahoma's presidential primary election in early 2008.

 

Clingman said he wants to spend $30 million appropriated by Congress to help implement changes in federal election law to purchase an updated version of the optical-scan voting system that will also accommodate the handicap-accessible requirements of the federal Help America Vote Act.

 

``We've been very happy with optical scan,'' Clingman said. The state currently has about 3,000 of the machines, he said.

 

Congress passed legislation four years ago to help states and counties modernize their voting equipment and avoid another hanging-chad debacle like the one during the 2000 presidential election in Florida.

 

In 2002, Congress earmarked $3 billion to buy new computerized voting hardware and software nationwide, Clingman said. Oklahoma's share was $30 million, and the state was required to provide a 5 percent match, or $1.5 million, to receive the federal money.

 

Clingman said the biggest issue state election officials must overcome in choosing a new voting system is security. The system must be impenetrable to computer hackers and others who might try to alter election results.

 

Clingman said voting machine manufacturers promoted e-voting and touch-screen technology, in which voters select candidates by touching the candidate's name on a computer monitor, until scientists said the systems were vulnerable to hackers and malfunctions.

 

Clingman said a couple of voting machine manufacturers, including Diebold Election Systems and Sequoia Voting Systems Inc., one of the largest U.S. voting equipment companies, are working to develop new optical-scan machines that will also permit voters who are blind or have poor eyesight to vote ``individually and securely'' as required by federal law.

 

``We're wanting optical scan to continue,'' he said.

 

The new federal requirements were in effect for the November 7th election. Visually impaired voters called in their votes to a computer in Oklahoma City from polling places in the counties where they voted.

 

The voters ask a poll worker to dial the state Election Board and identify which precinct the call is coming from. The voter is able to hear the names of candidates in each race and can vote by using the phone's keypad.

 

The system worked well but required Election Board workers to transmit ballots cast by visually impaired voters back to election boards in the county where the voter lives, Clingman said.

 

The state's proposed new voting system would incorporate the same keypad technology for visually impaired voters into machines placed in each precinct in the state.

 

``I prefer to keep it local,'' Clingman said.

 

Any changes in the state's voting system must be approved by the federal Election Assistance Commission, which oversees elections nationwide, Clingman said.

 

Reforms proposed by the commission that are set to go into effect in January will to give the agency more power to regulate elections and develop standards for voting software and hardware.

 

Voter rights advocates say the changes could strengthen the American electoral process and its patchwork of voting methods and inconsistent rules that has spawned numerous glitch-filled elections.

 

The agency is scheduled to vote next month on whether to forbid voting equipment manufacturers from selling hardware and software that is proved or suspected to fail.

 

It would be the first time the federal government had the power to punish companies that sold bad equipment.

 

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