Touch-screen, optical-scan ballots to be used this August

By BURKE WASSON

Beginning in August, St. Louis County residents will be voting in a way they never have before with the implementation of touch-screen and optical-scan ballots.

The traditional punch-card ballots used in elections have now been pushed aside as part of the county’s effort to comply with the Help America Vote Act established in 2002 by Congress.

But even the most noble of technological advancements wouldn’t truly enhance the voting system if it weren’t for awareness, according to county Board of Election Commissioners Chairman John Diehl. And that awareness of the new ballots is exactly what the election board will be spreading this summer to both voters and more than 4,000 election workers alike.

“We have to keep in mind that it’s people that run elections — just like if you’re in an office, people run computers,” Diehl said. “You can have the best computer system in the world, but if your people aren’t trained, using it doesn’t do you any good. So that’s what this program is about. It’s getting out and making sure that our voters and our poll workers are properly trained and are familiar with the system to be able to use it effectively. I think most of the problems you see in other jurisdictions are from poor practices and procedures.

“We have very competent, professional and stable election staff. We’re meeting and directing those issues head on now and we’re going to work on simply having the best practices and procedures and making sure our people are trained. That’s what will make the elections go smoothly. It’s not about the machines. It’s about the training,” Diehl added.

Diehl and a number of county officials, including County Executive Charlie Dooley, joined election board workers June 1 outside the County Council chambers in Clayton to signify the start of the voter education program for the new voting machines, which do away with the chad-punching system of past elections.

The county purchased both the touch-screen system and optical-scan ballot machines that will be used in all future elections from Election Systems & Software.

The touch-screen voting machines are similar, Diehl said, to automatic teller machines, and he believes that because many people already have used this technology at banks, their transition to touch-screen voting would be simple.

The optical-scan voting system is similar to the traditional punch-card ballot, but instead of punching in a vote, people now will use a marker to fill and blacken the circle next to their vote. This system also has been likened to the Scantron testing method used in schools across the country.

As part of the county’s voter education program, the election board has established a Web site to show people how to use each system at vote.stlouisco.com.

Diehl said that members of the Board of Election Commissioners also will visit town-hall meetings and other events to showcase the new voting machines to increase awareness.

“We’re having all kinds of outreach,” Diehl said. “We have full-time people dedicated. That’s their job every day is making sure that the voter outreach happens. We’re going to be going to libraries. We’re going to be going to chamber of commerce events. We’re going to be going to municipal events. Probably a few state, city, county fairs over the next couple months. We’re going to be there with a booth.

“We have our Web site that’s interactive where you can log on and run through the touch screen and see how it works. So we’re going to see all of those things. That’s our challenge. The machines work. It’s the training and the procedures that you put in place to make sure that people will use them and know how to do them.”

St. Louis County Library Interim Co-Director George Durnell said he is pleased that the 20 branches of the county library system, which house polling places during elections, will be used to help spread the word about the new voting machines. He termed the new voting machines “a first for St. Louis.”

“Never before has there been this kind of effort put into the education on how to vote,” Durnell said. “And we are very pleased that we have been asked to be a part of this process.”

Besides bringing St. Louis County’s voting methods up to date, the new voting machines also accomplish another purpose mentioned by Paraquad founder Max Starkloff — helping disabled people to vote.

“It’s a large portion of people out there who want to vote and are often discouraged to do so,” Starkloff said to those in attendance outside the council chambers.

“There a large number of people out there who want to share their opinions on how they feel about their candidates. And I really appreciate the opportunity for doing this and for St. Louis County being a leader in the country to make sure that this group is included. I really like what you’re talking about. We reach out to the community to educate them about the opportunity to vote and also for the poll workers to be able to understand the needs that so many disabled people have to be able to vote. We really appreciate the opportunity for our group to be able to join the rest of you in their right to vote,” he added.

Besides county branches of government, the League of Women Voters of St. Louis will distribute information about the new voting system.

Esther Clark, voter registration chairwoman for the League of Women Voters of St. Louis, said this is necessary so that people are not unprepared and intimidated by the new voting machines when they face them for the first time in August or November.

“Come this August, voters in St. Louis County will find two new voting machines in place to make voting more accessible,” Clark said. “Along with other partners in our community, we’re stepping forward to help get the word out to county voters about these important changes. But we can only do so much.

“The county has made the investment of purchasing the new equipment and developing the voter education materials. And we along with community partners are dedicating our time to communicate important information to the public. We need you to do your part, too. As St. Louis County citizens, we need you to come to the polls and vote.”

Once they accomplish that, Diehl said, he believes the people of St. Louis County will find that the new systems are much easier to use.

“I think it’s an exciting time,” Diehl said. “And I think once the voters experience this and have a good experience, they’ll engage people in the process and they’ll want to be involved in getting out to polling places.”