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New voting machines

by geoff dornan

The contract to buy more than 4,500 electronic voting machines and move Nevada voters into the computer age goes for a final vote by the Board of Examiners Tuesday.

It isn’t the $9,272,622 price tag that has election clerks worried. All but $463,600 of that will be paid for by the federal government under the Help America Vote Act.

Carson City Clerk Alan Glover said he and other county election officials are concerned that even if Sequoia, the company contracted to provide the machines, gets them here in the next month, counties won’t be able to use them because Secretary of State Dean Heller has mandated they be able to produce a paper receipt.

While Heller’s chief deputy Renee Parker says installing those printers to let voters confirm who they voted for is no big deal, she acknowledged Glover’s concern that there aren’t even federal standards for the so-called “Voter Verified Paper Trail” printing units.

In his report to other clerks about a recent conference in Washington, D.C., Glover said there are no standards now and “will be no standards in the foreseeable future.”

“They may not have standards in place for the 2006 election,” he advised his fellow clerks, pointing out that the federal technical commission is a year behind and hasn’t even been funded yet.

“We were told we won’t have those,” he said.

Glover said since Heller has already ruled that the punch card machines Carson City and six other counties have used for decades are no longer legal voting machines, the counties have to move forward. He said his preference is that, if the printing attachments aren’t certified in time, the counties be allowed to use the new machines without them.

But Heller has said he wants the printing units before the new electronic machines are used statewide. Parker said if the federal government can’t certify the printing units, the contract contains language designed to let the state hire experts to do the job at Sequoia’s expense.

“We’re now trying to find an expert who can test to standards,” she said.

And if they can’t get the printers certified and installed in time for the 2004 elections, the contract contains a Plan B, in which Sequoia must supply optiscan machines like those now used in Washoe County and eight other counties. Optiscan uses paper ballots, but scans them electronically to count ballots. The system is fully certified.

Glover said that means training everyone to first use Optiscan and then retraining them to use the new computer touch screen machines. He said he and other clerks would rather avoid switching voting systems twice, pointing out that Clark County already uses the touch screen machines without printer units and, in fact, will be using them this year.

But Heller isn’t alone in wanting some sort of paper ballot produced by the machines in case a recount is necessary. U.S. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., and State Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, have both said they believe a paper trail is important to the election process, as have a number of other elected officials.

Glover said the clerks need to know for certain by April 30 which system they are going to use.

The Board of Examiners has to first get the process moving Tuesday by approving the $9.2 million contract. The contract was pulled off last month’s board agenda after Parker and Elections Deputy Ronda Moore discovered what they considered major problems in some of the contract language.

One example she cited was a bit of “boilerplate” language that essentially said Sequoia wasn’t required to guarantee the machines could accurately count ballots.

Parker said Friday that language has been removed and the other issues have now been worked out with Sequoia, so she believes they have a good contract to present to the board.