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Alaska elections officials spent $1.7 million for electronic voting machines to help disabled voters cast ballots and wound up with a costly system that's never seen much use.
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Some legislators say they wouldn't object if the $3,500-apiece touch-screen machines were scrapped.
The machines were forced on the state by "those yahoos in Washington," said Rep. Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage, after politicians spent too much time listening to "glib lobbyists with something to sell."
The machines, produced by Diebold Inc., work fine as far as anyone knows, said Whitney Brewster, director of the state Elections Division in the office of the lieutenant governor.
The federal government paid for the machines with a grant under the Help America Vote Act, she said.
The state bought 505 of them, one for each of the state's 439 precincts, plus extras for bigger precincts or spares.
A decision by election officials to not use them in the last statewide election, however, has raised a question about whether they're needed at all.
In the touch-screen machines' first two outings, few people used them. In many precincts, no one at all used them, Brewster said.
In one Juneau precinct last year, nearly a quarter of the voters cast their ballots by touch screen. In some local polling places, however, they went untouched.
"Touch-screen voting units are intended for the blind and disabled community, but anyone can vote on them," Brewster said.
Alaska spent at least $75 shipping, each way, to move them to local precincts. Shipping to communities off the road system cost even more. Then local election staff had to be trained to set them up and perform required accuracy tests.
In the statewide election last April, Brewster decided to cut costs. An election expected to cost the state more than $1 million to poll opinions on same-sex benefits for state and local employees wound up costing hundreds of thousands of dollars less without the machines, as well as some other cost savings.
It was also important, she said, that no handicapped or disabled person was kept from voting because the touch screens weren't available.
"I've not heard, even through the grapevine, someone wasn't able to vote," she said.
In last year's August primary and November general elections, the first in which Alaska used the touch screens, Brewster estimated that fewer than 5 percent of voters used them.
In Juneau, about 3.3 percent of votes were cast by touch screen in August, 2006. The state has not done a statewide count of touch-screen voting.
Brewster said there was a smattering of complaints about the lack of touch screens in April, but everyone who wanted to vote was provided assistance to do so.
Voting with a helper isn't the same thing and is not what the Help America Vote Act intended, said David Fleurant, executive director of the Disability Rights Center in Anchorage.
"They were provided the right to vote, but it wasn't a secret ballot like the rest of us," he said.
Doogan said his objection to the use of touch screens is that the model purchased by the state provides no paper trail that can be used to check whether votes were cast and tallied appropriately.
"Touch screens were the big hot deal until people began to understand there were problems with them," he said.
Before the special election in April, Doogan introduced legislation to cut funding for it and replace it with a much cheaper phone survey instead.
"I won't dispute that the touch-screen voting units are expensive," Brewster said. "We have them because of the federal requirement to have a voting unit that is accessible to every voter."
That requirement applies only to elections with federal candidates, she said.
The legislation that paid for the machines also provided money for their operation, but only on a one-time basis, Brewster said.
"Once our federal funds dry up, that requirement will still remain, and we will need to pay for them somehow," she said.
Doogan said Alaska should stand up to the feds and not use the touch screens at all.
"What are they going to do?" he asked. "Send in troops and force us to use voting machines?"
Pat Forgey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 523-2250.
Touch screen voting machine usage in August 2006 primary election:
Touch- Total Percent
Precinct Location screen voters touch
Douglas Douglas Library 106 641 16.5%
Juneau 1 Assembly Chambers 1 249 0.4%
Juneau 2 Cathedral of the Nativity 3 374 0.8%
Juneau 3 Juneau Senior Center 0 582 0.0%
Juneau 4 Cedar Park 7 484 1.4%
Airport Nugget Mall 2 374 0.5%
Lemon Creek Alaska Electric Light And Power 0 322 0.0%
N. Douglas Juneau Fire Station 74 544 13.6%
Salmon Creek Tlingit and Haida Community Center 83 339 24.5%
Switzer Creek Gruening Park Recreation Center 16 201 8.0%
Valley 1 Mendenhall Mall 5 553 0.9%
Valley 2 Carrs/Safeway 18 688 2.6%
Valley 3 Glacier Valley Baptist Church 1 621 0.2%
Valley 4 Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church 67 729 9.2%
Auke Bay Auke Bay Fire Station 16 643 2.5%
Lynn Canal Auke Bay Ferry Terminal 40 516 7.8%
Source: Elections Division, Office of the Lieutenant Governor