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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, August 18, 2004

New voting machines to aid disabled

By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

The state has awarded Texas-based company Hart InterCivic a $3.8 million contract for new electronic voting machines to make the election process more accessible to disabled and non-English speaking voters.

Because of the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002, each precinct will have at least one of the new electronic voting machines for voters who usually need assistance at the polls.

The electronic voting machines, however, are generating concerns among at least some people about whether votes submitted into the machines can be reviewed should results be challenged. Elections officials say the machines are secure and that results can be audited.

Voter services coordinator Rex Quidilla said the primary voting system for the election will still be the optical scanner system, which has been in place since 1998 and uses paper ballots.

Friday's contract award — which covers the 2004 and 2006 elections — follows a request for proposal for a "direct recording electronic voting and vote counting system" primarily to comply with requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act, said state procurement administrator Aaron Fujioka. The contract award, which has yet to be finalized, is conditioned upon various routine requirements such as tax clearances and labor compliance certificates.

The cost includes nearly $2.58 million for the 2004 election and about $1.27 million for the 2006 election, with an option to extend the contract for the 2008 election, Fujioka said.

Quidilla said at least "a considerable amount" of the $3.8 million contract will be covered by $5 million in federal money the state received to comply with the Help America Vote Act, noting that the state Office of Elections' budget does not include additional money for the new machines.

Elections officials will formally unveil the system when the contract is finalized. Michelle Shafer, director of corporate communications for Hart InterCivic, said features of its eSlate electronic voting machines allow voters to turn a wheel and push buttons to select and confirm their choices. It includes headphones so the ballot can be read to a voter, as well as larger buttons that can be pushed or stepped on for those with physical disabilities.

Shafer said disabled voters who navigate their wheelchairs with a sip-and-puff device may also plug in their own device into the machine to make choices.

The machines will also provide voting information in English, Cantonese, Ilocano and Japanese, Quidilla said.

But the new system is drawing some concerns about whether results can be audited.

"We are entering an era where there are suspicions about elections, rightly or wrongly," said Big Island Democrat Bill Eger. "If you challenge an election and there's no paper trail, then what do you do? And we are certainly going to have close elections."

Shafer said the system is "very easily audited" and that recounts have been conducted with the system in other jurisdictions. She said officials may print out a record of each ballot that was cast on the machine and count them, and that the system also keeps records of every time someone had access to the machine and what was done.

Shafer also said the votes are stored redundantly in three separate areas of the system and that since the eSlate system went on the market in 2000, there has never been an election where the machine had been tampered with or votes had been lost because of malfunctions.

Reach Lynda Arakawa at larakawa@honoluluadvertiser.com or at 525-8070.