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County election going electronic

While many continue their quest for a paperless office, Island County officials are beginning their quest for a paperless election.

Why? Because the county's auditor believes it is time to find an electronic alternative to the current punch card voting system, a system that was made controversial in Florida during the 2000 presidential election.

Yes, in Island County, it's possible to have a hanging chad problem.

But that could end soon. In February voters will use electronic voting machines to cast their ballots for Sno-Isle Regional Library System levy election. Island County Auditor Suzanne Sinclair is borrowing the machines from Snohomish County, and plans to use this election to take advantage of an opportunity to gauge public sentiment toward the new voting system.

"It would be nice to have some public reaction," Sinclair said this week.

The library election was chosen because it covers areas in both Island and Snohomish counties. Extra machines were available because several cities, including Everett, don't participate in the library system. That frees up machines for Island County to use.

The Sno-Isle Regional Library System is holding a levy election Feb. 4 to restore its levy to 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

Island County is borrowing 50 to 60 machines for the election. The electronic voting machines provides a touch screen for voters who go to the polls to cast their ballots.

The machines are designed to improve accessibility, prevent inadvertent mistakes and voting for more than one candidate per position, Sinclair said.

Voters will also be able to write in a candidate selection.

Voting for more than one candidate invalidates a ballot for that position. Over-voting is prevented by allowing voters to select only one candidate per position. Voters are given a synopsis of their selections and can make changes before finishing.

The voting machines can be equipped with headphones and handpads so disabled or illiterate voters can listen to their selections. However, this option will not be available for Island County voters during the February vote.

The biggest issue for the trial will be the uncertainty involved with new technology.

"The hard part is the mental block that we're not dealing with paper anymore," said Sheree Noell, a sales executive for Sequoia Voting Systems, the firm that sold Snohomish County its electronic voting machines.

Sinclair added that Island County has to update its voting machinery and procedures to comply with the Help America Vote Act which was signed into law last October.

The new law provides $3.9 billion to states over the next three years to update machinery, train workers and educate voters. Although Island County is eligible for $263,000, Sinclair isn't banking on receiving that full amount.

While Island County is trying out electronic voting machines, Sinclair said that she has to find out what the county can afford and search for appropriate equipment. Any purchase is subject to approval by the Board of Island County Commissioners.

Island County has until 2006 to comply with the Help America Vote Act.

Snohomish County spent approximately $5 million to install 1,000 voting machines.

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