Voting system will be updated

Yesterday may have been one of the last times Island County voters will punch a ballot card, thanks to $260,000 in federal money earmarked for polling updates.

In the wake of the 2000 Florida polling debacle, President Bush last Tuesday authorized a $3.9 billion upgrade of antiquated voting systems, with $8.7 million set to go to Washington state.

Island County is in line to receive $260,000 to start fixing what is considered by many an outdated system. The money will pay for either optical-scan or touch-screen voting.

Counties are being allocated $4,000 per voting precinct; Island County has 65 precincts. County officials say they hope whichever system they choose will be up and running for the 2004 general election.

Although no particular problems have been reported in Island County, or the other 14 of the state's 39 counties that still use punch-ballot technology, the federal money is being heralded as a necessary measure.

Island County Auditor Suzanne Sinclair said Monday she's looking forward to implementing the new technology, although she pointed out no money has yet been appropriated by Congress.

"It's an excellent thing for the county," Sinclair said. "If we're required to change systems, and provide touch screen or some other system, that's a lot of money. The county is not in a financial position to provide that."

Sinclair said she's already contacted the state's congressional delegation to "make sure the money's appropriated." She urged voters to do the same thing.

Any technical changes to polling sites will have no effect on the current distribution of mail-in ballots, Sinclair said. The only change will be in the system used by voters at polling sites, and whether the votes are tallied at the precinct level or centrally.

New systems available for purchase with the federal money include an optical-scan system with which voters pencil in their votes as on a standardized test, or a touch-screen system that operates something like an ATM machine.

Snohomish County has already adopted a touch-screen system. The other non punch-card counties in the state use the optical scan system.

Punch-card voting, which was first brought to the state in the 1960s by former Clark County Auditor Don Bonker, is now seen as archaic technology, Secretary of State Sam Reed said recently.

Sinclair said a few questions still remain to be answered.

"There's still a lot to find out," Sinclair said.

Regardless of which system the county eventually chooses, Sinclair said poll workers, as well as voters will need to be brought up to date. She said she is planning on having prototype booths available for testing and practice at events such as the Island County Fair.

Sinclair said some time will be needed to "get the process to be familiar" with local voters.

"As Florida amply demonstrated, the equipment didn't make any difference if you don't take care of the process," she said.

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