Paper ballots return to Alexandria

When Alexandria voters turn up at the polls Tuesday, many are going to confront old-school technology — paper ballots.

Thanks to activists who objected to electronic voting machines because they did not provide a paper trail and because they feared hacking, the Virginia General Assembly in 2007 banned local governments from buying touch-screen machines when it came time to replace existing electronic systems.

Now that time has come. Voters will be using a new eScan system, which requires voters to mark their paper ballots with blue or black ink in the polling booth and then line up to scan the ballots themselves into a machine. The votes will be recorded electronically.

Poll workers are instructed to stay five feet away to protect voters’ privacy.

“I’ve been an election official for 28 years, and I know whenever we change anything, we get complaints,” said Tom Parkins, the city’s registrar.

But Parkins doesn’t think the new system will slow down the process of voting. If a ballot is put in crooked or if someone has voted for too many candidates in a particular race, the scanner will kick the ballot back out and the voter will be asked to try it again.

Other jurisdictions, such as Fairfax County, began using similar equipment in 2008. But anyone who has watched first-time users try to operate any new technology might have doubts about how seamless the process will be.

Michael Malloy, a trade press reporter who voted by early ballot, said it took him 50 percent longer to vote than his previous polling experiences.

“It seems like a huge step backward,” he said. “You have to fill in the boxes completely, you can’t use a check mark. Then I put my pristine ballot in [the scanner] straight and the thing just crunched my paper.”

Malloy recalled the 2008 presidential election, when the line wrapped around Alexandria City Hall by 6 a.m. because so many voters wanted to cast their ballots.

“Whether it’s intentional or not, this is going to add much more time, complexity and it’s going to invalidate many more ballots,” he said. “In a purple state like Virginia, we could have a Florida situation.”

During the 2000 presidential election, Florida’s problem with counting votes because of its punch-card paper ballots and hanging chads led to calls for more modern electronic voting machines. But four years later, concerns arose about the security of such technology.

Parkins expressed confidence about the voting systems for the coming primary, adding that the real test will come in the November general election, when the ballot will be four times as long as Tuesday’s ballot. Two scanners will be provided in each precinct in November.

On Tuesday, there will be one scanner in each of the 26 precincts. Each precinct will also have a single eSlate voting tablet for voters who have visual impairments or who have limited mobility. Parkins expects a turnout Tuesday of 15,000 to 20,000 of the city’s 80,000 active registered voters.

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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