Computerized voting machines, which bring a high-tech rebirth to the paper ballots abandoned 30 years ago, are now being introduced to voters in Anne Arundel County, the second county in Maryland to adopt the so-called optical scan system.
Created about four years ago, the Optech II works like a lottery machine, said Joe McIntyre, a sales representative for Business Record Corp., a large voting-machine manufacturer that is renting optic scanners to Anne Arundel for this year's primary and general elections.
Voters mark paper ballots by shading areas corresponding to their preferred candidates. Then they feed the ballots into the optical unit to record their votes.
The machine's makers say the relatively new system is far more accurate than the automated voting machine it is replacing. They are confident that its speed may improve voter turnout. And, the automated machines increasingly are difficult to maintain, they say.
"Mechanical voting devices are on their way out," said Robert Keller, a marketing vice president with Business Record. "With the AVM, it's like trying to buy a 1947 Chevrolet. Parts are hard to come by."
Optech II is one of three optical scan units created by Business Record, but the only one certified by the state. It is 3 1/2 feet tall and weighs 120 pounds, compared with voting booths, which typically stand about 7 feet tall and weigh 800 pounds.
Officials can check the accuracy of the vote count three ways, Keller said. They can view the memory pack inside the unit, read a paper printout, or count the actual paper ballots. Election results can be sent directly to a central computer.
For each unit, there are 15 voting booths, unlike the automated voting machines, which require all voters to stand in one line to vote.
"It cuts down on more than half the voting time for AVMs," Keller said.
Automated voting machines came into use during the 1950s. Many are still in use today. Voters step into the large machines, close a curtain behind them and flip down levers for the candidates of their choice.
But if the mechanical paper tape printout fails, election supervisors have to record totals from a counter on the back of the machines. When this happens, they must write down and add the numbers and transfer election results to a central precinct, a practice McIntyre said is susceptible to human error.
Keller said if gear malfunctions ever occurred within the AVM, no paper ballot would be available to provide an accurate vote count.
The company has installed about 5,200 Optech II units throughout the United States and Canada, he said. In Maryland, the only other jurisdiction to use the system is Howard County, which first used the units to count absentee ballots in 1986 and then officially adopted the system in 1988.
Howard County bought 80 units from Business Record for about $4,450 each. Including equipment and software, the total cost was about $457,000. One machine is needed for each of the 69 precincts.
The AVMs the county used to have cost about $3,800 each and five machines were needed at each precinct, about one machine for every 400 voters, said Barara Feaga, chief cerk of the Howard County Board of Supervisors of Election
Anne Arundel County is renting more than 100 units from Business Record at a cost of $175,000 a year on a five-year plan.
The new units will be in place at the county's 133 precincts for the Democratic and Republican primaries tomorrowand the Nov. 6 general election. The county had advertised in July for registered voters to familiarize themselves with the machines at test sites before the primary.
Washington and Worcester counties will begin using the Optech II this fall just to count absentee ballots.
Some other counties said they may adopt the Optech II system in the future if money is available, but right now they say they are satisfied with their systems.
Baltimore County has been using AVMs since the 1950s, and election board officials said the system remains efficient. Harford and Carroll counties use electronically tabulated punch card ballots.
Barbara Jackson, administrator of the Baltimore election board, said AVMs have been providing accurate counts for city elections, although the city pays thousands of dollars to rent storage space for its 2,200 massive voting machines.