Sign in, please – electronically – when voting Nov. 5

September 6, 2013
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Barbara Miller / Observer-Reporter
Washington County elections director Larry Spahr looks at an EZ Roster electronic poll book and printer that will be used for the first time in the county in the Nov. 5 general election. Order a Print
Image description
Barbara Miller / Observer-Reporter
The first task at electronic poll book training Friday at the Courthouse Square office building involved attaching a power cord to a small printer, which Jim Otto of the North Bethlehem 2 polling site is shown doing here. Order a Print

After a presidential election, when voter turnout is the heaviest, it would take Washington County elections office workers up to three weeks to scan bar codes matching the name of each person who cast a ballot so that he or she would get credit for showing up at the polls, thereby keeping one’s voter registration active.

With the county’s new electronic poll book, the task of recording the same data may take only a day and a half.

This fall, when Washington County Elections Director Larry Spahr predicts a rather anemic voter turnout, logging who bothered to vote “may take three minutes,” he said.

A paper poll book, prepared for each of Washington County’s 184 voting precincts, is the voluminous list of registered voters, their addresses, party affiliation and dates of birth, if available. In their first expenditure from the Marcellus Shale impact fee, the Washington County commissioners at the beginning of the year decided to devote more than $225,000 to electronic poll books from Electronic Systems and Software of Omaha, Neb.

Spahr received permission from the Pennsylvania Department of State to use $159,646 in federal tax dollars from the Help America Vote Act. The money was left over from the county’s purchase of touch-screen voting machines in 2006.

Precincts in densely-populated areas have asked voters with last names beginning with letters A through L to head to one line while those with names M through Z were sent to another queue because of the time it took to search through the alphabetized pages of the paper poll books. A single, foreign-made, tablet-style computer device promises to make the task easier.

Will the e-poll book be faster?

“We’ll see,” Spahr said. “It’s going to take an election or two for people to get used to it. This might be a good election to deploy it.”

With the electronic poll book, a member of the local election board will have to enter just a few letters of the voter’s last name to access his or her voter registration information. Or, with a common name like Smith or Jones, an election board member should be able to search quickly through first names and addresses so the voter can sign the third component of the setup, a signature pad, with a stylus.

If a name doesn’t show up in a precinct’s database, the local election board member will be able to search countywide for prospective voter’s name and direct him or her to another polling place if the person came to the wrong poll, cutting down on the number of phone calls election boards have had to make to the elections office to ascertain this information.

If a person’s name doesn’t show up at all, he or she will be able to mark a provisional ballot, which will be turned over to a canvass board.

The e-poll book also has a small printer, made in the United States, containing what resembles an adding-machine roll of paper so that poll watchers can check on who has turned up to vote.

And in case of a power failure, the e-poll book, like the touchscreen voting machines, has a six-hour backup battery. A group of roving technicians will be trained to report to any polling places where election boards are having trouble with the new devices.

At the first session held this week, election board members packed the room for a session with Rick Dixon, project manager for Election Systems & Software. “It looks like it’s complicated, huh?” said Lucille Blehi of Slovan, Smith Township’s 1st precinct.

“You will love the poll book,” Dixon told the gathering. “You may not love it today.”

Spahr said he plans to send paper pollbooks to the precincts for the Nov. 5 election as a backup, but they’ll be under seal and anyone who uses the paper books will have to explain why.

If an election board experiences difficulties with the equipment, a technician will be sent out.

“How long will it take the rover to get there?” asked one election board member with a worried look.

Other training sessions in the use of the new poll books, is scheduled for Monday, Sept. 13, 16; and 17.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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