September 14, 2006
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING, Capitol Bureau Chief
In a preview of next year's statewide deployment of new voting machines, 25 cities and towns will be using the optical scan devices in November's general election.
By November 2007, 1,538 optical scanners will handle all voting in the state. Rather than pull levers for their candidates, voters will fill in ovals on a ballot sheet, similar to the process used on lottery ticket forms or standardized test answer sheets.
The selection of the new machines has dragged on for years and has been highly contentious, with some state legislators insisting that there is nothing wrong with the lever machines that have been used for more than 50 years.
But changes in federal law - made after the controversial vote-counting in Florida in the 2000 presidential election - have prompted the state to mothball its lever machines.
South Windsor and Vernon, where officials have been calling for the change for more than a decade, will be among the first towns to deploy the new technology for all voters.
"I've wanted to use this machine since we first tried it in South Windsor in 1994, and I am happy we are finally using it," said Jan Murtha, the town's Republican registrar of voters.
In Hartford, the new machines will be available at four of the 23 polling places, said Marie G. Hamilton, the deputy Democratic registrar. The four sites have not been announced, but she said they will be spread out geographically
Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, who oversees the process as the state's chief elections official, says optical scan voting is "the most common form of voting technology in America today" with more than half the counties in the United States using the machines. Currently, 26 states use the new technology, including Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Any use in Connecticut has been sporadic and on a limited basis.
Many of the lever machines used across Connecticut were purchased in the 1950s and 1960s. The technology dates to the 1930s.
"They have not been made since 1982," Bysiewicz said Wednesday. "Over the last eight years, we've had more issues of machine malfunctions and problems."
The state will use nearly $16 million in federalmoney to buy 1,538 optical machines and about 8,000 "privacy booths." Each booth has a table and barriers on three sides so that no one can see which ovals are being filled in.
Once the ballot is completed, it is then placed into the optical scanner for counting. The Massachusetts company that makes the machines - LHS Associates, Inc. - says that the oval does not need to be filled in completely.
"As long as the oval has been somewhat colored in, the machine will read it," says the company, which supplies the machines to all New England states except Rhode Island. "We do not recommend putting a check mark or an x through the oval. You do not need to stay inside the oval, but you cannot go into another oval."
In recent years, the state House Republican leader, Robert M. Ward, has questioned why state officials were talking about making changes, citing a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that declared that the lever voting machines were "the most reliable " in the country. "There is some risk in experimenting in elections," Ward said at the time. "We shouldn't fix a problem that isn't broken."
But the 25 towns that will use the optical scan are those where the registrars and top town officials are already embracing the technology.
"South Windsor and East Hartford are going to get a head start on the rest of the state in the use of this new technology," said Sen. Gary LeBeau, who represents both towns. "I have no doubt that the voters in these two communities will be comfortable with and successful with optical scan technology. We'll be pros by Election Day 2007."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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