From the Portland
Monday, November 1, 2004
By SUSAN M. COVER, Blethen Maine News Service
AUGUSTA -- Paper ballots are still counted by hand in 80 percent of Maine communities on Election Day. And despite a national movement toward computerized voting machines, Maine officials want to tread lightly when it comes to changing what has worked.
"It's neighbors conducting the election of their neighbors," Secretary of State Dan Gwadosky said. "It really has served us well."
The state will introduce at least one computerized voting machine in each polling place in Maine by 2006 to comply with a federal requirement to help the disabled vote on their own. Those machines have an audio component to help the visually impaired or others vote without help.
Beyond that, there is little money and perhaps even less interest in switching from what is considered to be a trustworthy system to one that uses touch-screen computers.
Dresden Town Clerk Kim Rzasa says she talked about the newer methods at a recent training session for election officials.
"I said, 'Unfortunately ladies, they are nationalizing everything and we have to be brought down to the standards of the rest of the country,' " she said.
The national changes Rzasa refers to are known as the Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress in 2002 and designed to help states get rid of problematic punch card ballots, create statewide voter-registration lists and provide more training for workers.
While Maine has not been plagued with widespread voting problems, others think it is time for smaller towns to consider moving to the optical scanners to tabulate votes.
In the move to embrace new technology, some states have forgotten the basics of how to run a good election, Gwadosky said. And it is much easier to conduct recounts when there is a paper trail to follow.
Douglas Jones, a computer scientist who studies voting machines at the University of Iowa, says it appeared Maine has an unusually high number of communities still counting ballots by hand. In that way, Maine is similar to North Dakota, Wyoming and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. "In places like that, it's sensible not to go overboard on technology," he said.
Another drawback of the computerized touch-screen machines is cost. The systems can cost as much as six times per vote as the optical scanners, he said.
Jones likes the optical scanners, which read ballots with arrows connected or ovals filled in. He describes them as a good compromise between high-end voting technology and counting by hand, which he says can be error-prone.
Ten years from now, Jones says he hopes the country will still have many ways to vote and tally results. "If we end up with a national standard, then if we discover later we got it wrong, where do we go?" he asked.
65 PERCENT of Maine citizens vote on paper ballots that are read by optical scanning machines.
35 PERCENT vote on paper ballots that are counted by hand.
IN MORE THAN 350 towns in Maine, about 80 percent of communities, ballots are counted by hand.
Copyright © 2004 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.