Balto. Co. election chief seeks new vote machines

January 23, 1995|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore County's election administrator says she wants to scrap the county's Cold War-era voting machines and join the computer age in time for the March 1996 presidential primary.

Doris Suter is proposing that the county buy an Op-Tech III Eagle computer voting system similar to those used by 10 Maryland counties, including Anne Arundel, Harford, Howard and Carroll.

"I'm definitely recommending it," Mrs. Suter said.

The new system was demonstrated Tuesday for the County Council.

Besides simplifying storage and maintenance, the system would count the votes faster on election night and allow the county to reduce the number of election judges from

2,100 to 1,700, she said. That would save at least $48,000 per election.

She said recruiting judges has become a headache because more women work outside the home, shrinking the pool from which judges traditionally have been drawn.

With an electronic system, each polling place would have one machine, instead of the four to 10 large, mechanical voting machines that have been used for more than three decades. Waiting would be reduced because each precinct could have as many polling booths as needed, said John R. Reynolds, sales manager for Business Records Corp. of Dallas, the company selling the new system.

Voters use ballots printed on paper cards and cast their votes by connecting the point and feather of an arrow printed next to a candidate's name. Each card is fed into a 42-pound electronic machine and scanned.

When the polls close, judges no longer would have to open the back of each machine and record the votes for each candidate and ballot question. The votes would be tabulated automatically and printed on paper at each precinct. The votes also would be recorded on a computer memory chip that would be taken to election board headquarters.

"We can be out of here by 9:30," Mrs. Suter said, referring to vote counts that often have gone past midnight in recent years.

Barbara Feaga, Howard County's director of elections, said Howard has used an earlier model of the Op-Tech system since 1988.

"We're very pleased," she said. "It saves tremendous amounts of time, judges and printing costs."

Buying the system would cost about $1.6 million, plus $41,000 a year for software and maintenance, Mrs. Suter said. A seven-year lease-purchase agreement would cost $27,584 a month, but the company would pay for storage, delivery and maintenance and would train poll workers.

Mrs. Suter and Mr. Reynolds said Business Records Corp. is looking for a warehouse in Maryland and might be willing to take over a five-year, $762,000 lease the county signed last summer for voting machine storage in Woodlawn. Mrs. Suter complained last week that the first month's electric bill for the Woodlawn warehouse was $770, including heat. "We can't pay that every month," she said.

Seven Maryland jurisdictions still use the old voting machines, but they include three of the four largest -- Baltimore City and Prince George's and Baltimore counties.

Mrs. Suter said the county needs a new system because of increasing problems with its 1,185 mechanical-lever machines. The 800-pound behemoths, bought in the 1950s and 1960s, have become increasingly hard to maintain and are expensive to store, program and move. "It's just gotten out of hand," she said.

In November, she said, workers had to tape worn electrical cords on several machines to get the lights inside to work, and she worried that voters might receive shocks. Also, she said, some churches won't allow their buildings to be used as polls places because they fear the heavy machines will damage floors and supports.

Elections board President Robert Seidel said the board has had complaints from handicapped voters about difficulty reaching levers.

While lobbying for the new machines, Mrs. Suter is scouting sites in central Towson for a new election board headquarters. The offices are in the former Parkville Elementary School on Hiss Avenue, which does not offer easy access for the handicapped.

County Administrator Merreen Kelly said he asked Mrs. Suter to consider moving because the county has received several complaints about access to the building.

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