Touch screen voting successful, but costly

Bay City News
Wednesday November 15, 2000

While Florida struggles with hand counts and “hanging chad,” several counties around the Bay area are saying easy-to-use touch-screen voting computers eliminate many Election Day problems. 

Election officials say the computers, which were used for the first time in Alameda County and San Mateo counties this year and brought back for the second and third times in Marin and Monterey counties, are easy to use.  

Furthermore, they don't allow voting mistakes like those plaguing ballot counts in Florida as the nation waits for a presidential winner to be determined. 

Approximately 6,400 voters used the touch-screen voting machines in Monterey County, where more than 20 were available at two shopping centers and some county and city offices in the weeks before the election. The terminals offered both English and Spanish. 

Elsewhere, around 3,000 voters used the touch screens at registrar offices in Alameda County in English, Spanish and Chinese. San Mateo and Marin counties offered only a few machines at registrars' offices. 

Peter Wendt, information systems coordinator for the Monterey County Elections Department, said the computers let voters know right away if they mistakenly vote for two candidates. 

“This is the third election we’ve used them,” he said, “and the public really likes them because it's a lot easier to vote. If people make a mistake, they can just correct it instead of asking for a new ballot, and they can't overvote,” he said. 

Elaine Ginnold of the Alameda County Department of Elections echoed Wendt's assessment. 

“The voters just loved it,” she said. “It certainly seems like a more modern way to do things. I voted on a touch screen in our office and it was very simple.” 

Counting the votes is equally straightforward. Results are compiled as they come in on the computer, and saved on a disk as well as on the hard drive. 

“The count was pretty easy,” Ginnold said. “At 8 o'clock, all we had to do was take the disk and upload it at the counting site. With paper ballots, just getting the ballots ready to count takes an hour.” 

The new system still has some weak points, of course. Votes still need to get from the polling place to counting sites, and some have noted that the machines don't provide paper ballots against which to check disputed results.  

The greatest drawback to the touch-screen machines, however, and the reason we probably won’t see them everywhere at the next election, is cost.  

The machines cost $3,100 a piece, according to Ginnold, and buying enough for all of Alameda County alone would cost around $13 million. 

Potentially, however, the machines could be worth the cost. 

“The initial expense is quite high, but they pay for themselves,” Wendt said. “We wouldn’t have to print ballots, and on Election Day it would save labor because you wouldn't need people to count.”