continued Despite all the new voting innovations that are on the way, the current system still requires old-fashioned ballot-readers.
Charlie Wallace, the man who operates, maintains, and runs the ballot-reading equipment, opens the door behind the office, revealing an enormous warehouse. In one area are several ballot-readers covered with vinyl tarps. The rest of the space is reserved for the ballots that will arrive on election day. Wallace says that the technology is fairly old, but the readers have been upgraded. "These readers are about 20 years old. They used to read program decks a long time ago to program mainframe computers, and they were adapted back in the early '80s to read ballots. They read 1000 ballots a minute, which is a lot faster than any other technology that reads a paper-type ballot. Most of the other technologies read between 60 to 400 ballots per minute. They use a blower mechanism to fan out the cards, and the ballots come in from an input hopper with about 650 ballots on the input side." He turns on the machine, which makes an industrial hum.
Placing a stack of cards in the input side, they are quickly shuffled through to the other side. "They are very fast and very accurate. The only problems with these are chads: if people don't punch the hole out, then it causes some problems with accuracy. But if all of the procedures are followed and the hole is punched out, then these things read at almost 100 percent accuracy rate. Each one of these machines runs between $4500 and $6000, depending on whether you can find it used or new. What we've got here is a couple of servers, eight or ten work stations, probably a total of less than $40,000 worth of actual hardware to count the ballots. The devices that are used for punch ballots at the polling places are worth a total of about $23 million. There's also the computer software, which is fairly expensive, because it does a variety of things besides counting the ballots. It has to lay out the ballots for the candidates in the right order, with the contests in the right order on the devices. It has to have the ability to edit, change, add records -- so it's fairly comprehensive."
Another comprehensive task required of the counters is absentee ballots. "It also has to tabulate at the end, and it has to manage a paper absentee ballot system, or it has to handle these." He points to a stack of absentee punch ballots. "Except these guys won't have holes on them anymore. They'll have marks where the punches are. They call it an optical ballot. These readers are modified to read those. Half a million pieces of paper is a whole lot of paper."
The new absentee ballots Wallace is talking about will be different from the punch-ballots voters are used to mailing in. They will be paper mark-in ballots with the names of the candidate or initiative clearly printed on the same paper, making mail-in chads obsolete. "I don't think that chads were the issue for the absentee change. The problem was that you can't just look at your ballot and tell whether you voted for a particular race or measure. It's all numbers. You've got to look back at your sample ballot. That's probably more the issue. The new paper- ballot systems are becoming a lot more sophisticated, and you can count them faster. They will just be for absentee, which isn't a small number. In a general presidential election, where we have our biggest turnout, we have about a million voters or more. Since a third of San Diego County voters vote by mail, we have close to 350,000 voters voting by mail. I think San Diego is a little bit on the higher side for absentee voting -- I've heard it's 25 percent for the rest of the state."
Although most voters probably don't remember, McPherson says that San Diego County had its own vote-counting crisis in the 2000 election. "There was an Otay Water Board election. While all this was happening in Florida, a race in the division for the water board was neck and neck. We were adding in absentee and provisional ballots after election day. When it came down to certification, it was a tie. So what do you do if it's a tie? You flip a coin! The district did it at their offices, and I went down there for it. It was the first coin toss that I had ever seen. They flipped a coin, and one of the candidates won the toss, so then the other candidate immediately filed for a recount. On our system, if it's one or two or three votes different, that's probably the only time you would ever really want a recount, because if the results aren't turned around, you [the candidate] have to pay for it yourself. If the results aren't overturned, the candidate pays all the costs. If they are overturned, we pay the costs. There were only 8000 ballots cast for this particular election, so it wasn't huge, but if it were a countywide recount, it would take many days with many people doing it and could be pretty darned expensive. Anyway, they did the recount and, at the end, the results were identical. Unchanged. I think that speaks very well for the system. Having followed what happened in Florida, it was very timely for us, because it was kind of a validation for any questions about the accuracy of our system."
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