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County elections unlikely to have mishaps

Voting machines malfunctioning, poll workers who don’t know what to do, polling places closed before they’re supposed to, frustrated voters – it’s an election official’s nightmare.

This nightmare – which Nevada County officials say couldn’t happen here – was a reality once again for counties across the state of Florida last week as voters cast their ballots for the Democratic primary for governor.

Two years after Florida held the country in a 36-day limbo while the votes for the presidential election were being tabulated, the state invested nearly $32 million to reform its election system.



Despite the state’s effort to replace its butterfly-ballot and punch-card system with touch-screen voting machines for this year’s primary elections, Florida precincts still struggled with the election.

Because of the voting mishap two years ago, the California legislature also decided that county election offices need to upgrade their voting machines to the touch-screen version within the next couple of years.




But could the same problems that plagued Florida counties this year also disrupt Nevada County elections this year, and in the future when new voting systems are in place?

County election officials say Nevada County voting systems, as well as voting systems across California, are extremely unlikely to malfunction the way election systems in Florida did.

“The laws governing elections in California are radically different than the laws governing elections in Florida,” said Lorraine Jewett-Burdick, Nevada County clerk-recorder.

Jewett-Burdick is part of a state-wide voting system modernization committee, which tests different voting systems and determines whether a machine is voter friendly or not.

A voter-friendly machine would be easy to read and would use language that clearly states what the voter needs to do to choose a candidate and cast a ballot, she said.

Butterfly ballots and punch-card systems, especially after the last presidential election, would not fly here, she said.

The county currently uses an optical scan vote-counting system, much like high school or college test cards, with ballot cards that have ovals filled in by the voter.

“There are no ‘chads,’ hanging or otherwise!” Jewett-Burdick said about the county’s election system in an editorial she wrote in 2000 for the Grass Valley Union, the Sierra Sun’s sister paper.

Once polling places are closed, the ballots are sealed and delivered to the Elections Office in Nevada City. Ballot scanners then read the blackened ovals at a rate of 350 ballots per minute. The counted ballots are sealed again and stored in a locked vault.

There is a 28-day canvass period after the election during which officials verify signatures on all absentee ballots and verify the validity of provisional ballots.

The canvassing board manually counts one percent of the ballots cast to check the accuracy of the ballot scanners. Only after this period can a recount be requested.

Truckee Town Clerk Patt Osborne said that elections and election systems come with a “humongous amount of instructions” that make it difficult for staff to mess up.

“You don’t deviate [from the instructions]. It seems so simple to me,” Osborne said, expressing her disbelief in the election mishaps in Florida.

Within the next four to five years, Jewett-Burdick said Nevada County will upgrade its election system to comply with federal legislation that requires that all polling places to be handicap accessible.

The County has already received $866,000 in grant funding to upgrade to new touch screen voting machines.

An important aspect of the new touch-screen systems being developed is that they have the ability to read the ballot to a blind voter.

Replacing a familiar voting system with a new, high-tech version can cause problems in the beginning.

Jewett-Burdick said it takes a little work for voters and poll workers to get the hang of the new systems, but that it isn’t too hard to avoid a mess like the one in Florida.

“You’ve got to do a lot in voter education and poll worker education,” she said.

Osborne noted that Truckee, Nevada County and the State of California election officials have one important thing that can make a difference in ballot counting.

“[In Florida] it seems like there was a lack of what we have here, which is control,” Osborne said.


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