Early voters to try new ballots

Anderson, Roane, Loudon, Sullivan to test paper method

By Bob Fowler knoxnews.com

CLINTON - Early voters in the August and November elections in four East Tennessee counties will get a preview of how ballots will be cast statewide in 2010.

Instead of using electronic voting machines, they will mark paper ballots that will be read by optical scanners.

The switch in voting methods will take place in Anderson, Roane, Loudon and Sullivan counties only during the two-week early voting periods before the two upcoming elections this year.

Knox County was considered for the program, but Administrator of Elections Greg Mackay said paper ballots won't be used in Knox this year.

The changeover will free up the other four counties' electronic voting machines normally employed in early voting for use instead on Election Day.

State election officials are scrambling to ensure that all counties will have enough voting machines for an expected huge turnout in the presidential election in November.

"We're trying to avoid colossally long lines," said Brook Thompson, the state coordinator of elections.

The state's game plan for dealing with the expected heavy voter turnout hasn't been finalized, he said.

At the same time, the state is gearing up for a major change in how ballots will be cast by November 2010.

Lawmakers this spring approved the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act in response to concerns over current electronic voting machines.

Advocacy groups and others had expressed worries that those devices are susceptible to mistakes and fraud. They urged adoption of machines that include a voter-verifiable paper trail.

With the new state law, any voting machine purchased or leased after this year must use "precinct-based optical scanners" of paper ballots.

"We knew this law was coming like a freight train," said Dana Zehner, Loudon County administrator of elections.

With that changeover, millions of dollars in high-tech voting machines purchased by 93 of Tennessee's 95 counties will become outdated.

Those machines came in style after Congress in 2002 passed the Help America Vote Act in response to the controversial presidential election of 2000.

The act provided federal funding to help replace punch card and lever voting machines, often with touch-screen electronic voting devices.

Anderson County, for instance, purchased 87 eSlate tablet voting machines for $357,500 in 2006.

Now, those machines, which have only been used in five elections, will be obsolete by November 2010, when the new voting system must be in place.

There are three types of electronic voting machines now in use in Tennessee that will soon be outdated.

Only two counties - Hamilton and Pickett - have the up-and-coming voting system, said Roane County Election Administrator Tony Brown.

Gena Frye, the Sullivan County administrator of elections, said she would be using the paper ballots and optical scanners at just one of three early voting sites when balloting starts July 18.

"Historically, this is not as large an election," she said. "It would be a very good time to test these machines out."