Howard elections board considers purchasing paperless voting system

Purchased in 1987, old machines wearing out

May 07, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Secure in her primary election victory for Howard County register of wills, a tired, but happy Kay K. Hartleb relaxed at home last September -- until she flipped on her television.

An errant county voting machine computer chip gave Larry G. Fales, her Republican rival, an extra 40,000 votes -- more votes, she knew, than were cast for both candidates combined.

"It was a real shocker," Hartleb remembers, chuckling. "I had won easily. I had seen it at [election] headquarters."

The computer error was quickly corrected, but county elections administrator Barbara W. Feaga said the incident helped convince her it is time to start shopping for a new voting system.

"We purchased this system in 1987. Some parts are showing wear," Feaga said, and items such as computer chips and cartridge memory packs cannot be replaced. "We want to be prepared."

Still, there is no hurry. Officials say the current paper ballot card-reader system is reliable and will remain in use through 2000. The goal, Feaga said, is to have a new system in place for 2002.

"What we're really striving to get away from is the paper ballot," said Frank Lupashunski, president of the county elections board.

That's because they cost $40,000 per election to print and sometimes cause problems if the print isn't positioned correctly for the voting machines to read, or if they're fed incorrectly into the machines.

"Sometimes they're not cut properly. The tolerances are very, very tight," Lupashunski said. Baltimore County officials had several paper ballot problems after the primary, delaying their vote count by several hours.

To achieve a paperless system, the county could go to a screen-style touch voting system similar to one Baltimore began using last year. Newer versions could transmit the results electronically, instead of requiring physical delivery of memory packs to election headquarters, Feaga said.

Baltimore's system, in which voters push lighted buttons, requires physical delivery of the results after the polls close. That caused a problem after the September primary when several couriers for a private firm got lost.

Another major decision for Howard election officials is whether to own or lease new machines for the county's 85 precincts, Feaga said.

"I feel strongly it's a better arrangement to own it. That way, you can set the criteria for how much service you want," Feaga said.

New machines likely would cost about $5,000 each, she said, but the number of machines can vary depending on what system the county chooses.

Whatever the decision, Feaga, 63, wife of former County Councilman Charles C. Feaga and board administrator since 1982, won't be around to help make the choice. She is retiring July 1.

"I'll have 20 grandchildren by August," she said, and she wants to spend more time with them.

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