Voters To Use Optical Scanners

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008

Fairfax County voters will have a new option for casting their ballots Nov. 4, and it will look a lot like a high school math test.

Fairfax officials have bought about 240 optical scanner machines, including at least one for each of the county's 228 polling places. The scanners, which read paper ballots that resemble the Scantron exam sheets long used in high schools and colleges, were bought to help manage what might be a record turnout for the election.

Since 2002, the county has almost exclusively used electronic touch-screen machines, and voters will still have the option of using them at precincts. Last year, Virginia lawmakers banned local governments from buying touch-screen machines because of concerns about their susceptibility to hacking and the lack of a paper trail.

"We needed to provide more voting equipment, and the only way we could do it is through the optical scanners," said Gary Scott, Fairfax's deputy registrar. The new machines cost about $770,000, he said.

Optical scanners have been embraced by voting rights activists who say they are more efficient and reliable than the touch-screen machines.

Voters who use the scanners will be asked to complete a paper ballot, which they will then manually feed into the scanner. If there is a problem with the ballot, the machine will spit out the ballot and the voter will be allowed to complete a new one. If the election is contested, officials might turn to the collected paper ballots for a recount.

"People have been using optical scanners for years and with good results," said Alex Blakemore, a founding member of Virginia Verify Voting, a voting rights organization. "One machine can do a whole precinct instead of half a dozen computers. Multiple people can vote in parallel. And by default, you get a voter-verified paper trail."

Loudoun County officials have long used optical scanners as their primary method of voting. Like Fairfax, Arlington County bought optical scanners because of the expected crush of voters, Blakemore said. Prince William County, which opposes the touch-screen machine ban, did not buy any voting machines this year. Voters there might experience long lines as a result, Blakemore said. Prince William officials said they have enough machines to handle the crowds.

Falls Church also did not buy any machines; officials said the city's supply is more than sufficient. Falls Church uses an eSlate, which has a knob and buttons instead of a touch screen. The city cannot buy more because those are also covered by the ban, which requires any new machines to have a paper trail.

David Skiles, political director for the Fairfax County Republican Committee, said he is confident in the security of touch-screen machines and has no concerns about optical scanners.

"The optical scan ballot machines are probably as accurate as any other machine, and they do give a paper trail, which gives some comfort to some people," he said. "Personally, I have no problem at all with the touch screen, but I feel both machines will do the job adequately."

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