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New D.C. voting machines pass their final public test before primaries begin

By Rick Rojas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2010; B04

It's slow to boot up, like an old DOS computer, and it probably will take awhile to tabulate once the polls have closed. But the District's new electronic voting booth functioned properly during its final test before early voting starts Monday in the D.C. primary.

Its launch means including a device prone to confusing the less-than-technologically-savvy in an election that includes another risky debut: registering to vote at the polls.

"We've been given a lot of challenges to handle," Rokey W. Suleman II, executive director of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, said of the coming primary, but he added that the board was prepared for an election with high stakes for his office.

On Wednesday, he attempted to assuage apprehensions related to one of the bigger challenges. His staff carted in one of the electronic voting booths, as well as a ballot scanner, and fired them up for a public test.

The voting machine was slow to start, with a blue progress bar slowly creeping toward 100 percent. Although sluggish, the machine worked. It has a touch-screen monitor, and voters make their selection by touching the candidate's name on the screen. After the selections have been made, the voter has the opportunity to review and change the ballot.

An audio version of the ballot and headphones will be available for the visually impaired, as well as a Spanish version. Suleman said voters are still allowed to bring anyone who's not their employer or their union representative to the polling machine for help.

The machine probably will be slow on the back end as well, taking about 90 minutes for the information to process after the polls close, Suleman said. Additional delays are factored in because of the same-day registration. Suleman said the names of those registered at the time of voting will be cross-checked with registries in Maryland and Virginia as a safeguard against dual ballots.

The option to vote on paper remains. Voters can cast their ballots on paper at the Judiciary Square polling location during early voting or at any voting location on Election Day.

Three people at each of the poll locations have been trained in the operations of the new voting machine. A ballot clerk will be there to help voters operate the machine, and a technician will be on hand to troubleshoot technical glitches or replace the paper record of the votes on each machine. The captain at the location also will be trained in the user interface and how to handle technical issues, Suleman said.

To protect the validity of the election, the system has a "triple redundancy" in which votes are saved three times electronically and once on paper, said Paul Stenbjorn, IT services director for the Board of Elections and Ethics.

Of the handful of people who attended the public test, a few were skeptical. One woman rolled her eyes as the machine was turned on, worried that the time it took to load was a sign of a problem. Others were ambivalent about new technology in an age-old process that had worked on paper.

"We've come from archaic conditions . . . where ballots were half as long as a table," said Lillian Huff, who has long been involved in the Democratic Party in the District. With the new technology, "my concerns are about the process and how people will have access to it."

Lawrence Guyot, a civic activist at the public test, said he was impressed by the system put together by the city but had a generational concern: No matter how many backup plans officials have, they'll have to confront the problem that many older voters might be befuddled by the technology.

"I'm part of the problem," he said. "I'm 71 years old. I don't use a computer."

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