Voting machines are cutting edge, but stir discontent

505 new poll devices to debut this summer in the state primary

Posted: Friday, April 21, 2006

The new touch-screen Diebold is a voting machine, but it has more of the new-fangled flair of a self-checkout machine at an airport or grocery store.

It even converts to a hand-held device for the disabled.

With some elbow grease, a poll worker can pull the voting machine's screen monitor out of the machine, allowing people in wheelchairs to vote in their laps.

A handful of legislators - including Reps. Ralph Samuels, R-Anchorage, and David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks - gave the machines a spin on Thursday morning at the Capitol.

Guttenberg took a plastic ballot card and swiped it. He acknowledged later that he voted for Abraham Lincoln for president.

Guttenberg, however, is not amused by the new voting machines.

He and other Democrats in the Legislature are giving the new Diebolds a wary look because of 2004 state election snafus.

Guttenberg has introduced a bill that would require the Alaska Division of Elections to compare the printed record of every 10th electronic ballot with the electronic record of that ballot, as soon as the ballot is cast.

Election officials say the bill would require snooping on people's votes and would be illegal. Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, who chairs the committee that Guttenberg's bill has been sent to, agrees with the division.

"You'd need a poll worker to look at each person's ballot. They'd know how John Q. Public voted," Seaton said Thursday.

Democrats' fears about the election process are wide-ranging, however.

Some Democrats, for example, are naturally suspicious of Diebold, Inc., of Ohio. The manufacturing company, which also makes automated teller machines, was embroiled in a scandal over Republican fundraising last year.

In addition, an earlier model of touch-screen Diebold voting machines has experienced voting snafus in other states. The Maryland Legislature last month voted to stop using its Diebolds. Maryland's machines apparently do not include a paper printout like the newer models that will be used in Alaska.

Diebold manufactured the AccuVote optical scan machines still in use in Alaska. The new disabled-friendly models will not replace hand-counting or the AccuVote optical scan method, according to Brewster.

The new machines were purchased mainly to assist the visually impaired and disabled, Brewster said. They can be used by any voter, but only one of the machines will be installed at each polling place, Brewster said.

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Alaska officials insist that the 2004 election snafus in Alaska had nothing to do with Diebold hardware. The problem was a programming error by an elections division employee, Brewster said.

Guttenberg said Thursday that Democrats remain unsatisfied by the division's explanations.

The division recently denied the state Democrats access to electronic data from the 2004 election, saying that the request would divulge Diebold's proprietary business information.

Guttenberg scoffs at that. The Democrats would be happy to sign a confidentiality agreement, if needed, he said.

The Democrats filed a lawsuit to get the records this week.

The new machines are not implicated in the 2004 elections because they were not in use at that point. They had been shipped to Alaska at that point, but were sent to Texas to get retrofitted.

State law requires that voting machines have a paper trail, says Whitney Brewster, director of the Division of Elections.

When the new machines were originally sent to Alaska, they didn't allow a printed report, Brewster explained. The new retrofits have a printer, which generates a receipt showing a voter his or her election picks.

If the printout doesn't show the results the voter intended, he or she can go back and electronically correct the ballot. The voter can only reject two printout ballots. Then, the voter gets kicked over to an AccuVote optical scan machine.

Five hundred and five of the new machines manufactured by Diebold will debut in the 2006 Alaska elections.

"The machines seem to work very well," said Seaton, who watched the demonstration at the Capital on Thursday.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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