Hopefully Gila County has seen its last chad.
Those pesky little punch card ballot droppings and the voting system that produces them will be history if the state Legislature passes House Bill 2010. The measure would allow Secretary of State Betsy Bayless to seek funding to acquire optical scan voting equipment for Gila County and the eight other counties who still use the punch card system that caused so many problems in Florida during the presidential election last year.
Last week, the Gila County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to participate in the program to lease or purchase optical scan voting equipment by the 2002 primary election in September. HB2010 requires each county to decide by Dec. 31 if it wants to opt out of the program, Gila County Elections Director Dixie Mundy said.
If the bill passes, private funding sources will be used to lease or purchase the new equipment. Because of projected budget shortfalls, Governor Jane Hull line-item vetoed a measure proposed by Bayless to have the state fund the new equipment at a cost to taxpayers of $3.4 million.
"When Betsy Bayless realized it was probably not going to happen, she decided to try and find private and federal funding," Mundy said.
Because Arizona voting and recount procedures are uniform statewide, Bayless said that what happened in Florida could never happen here. But she still thinks it's critical to eliminate the punch card system.
"I am increasingly concerned about the performance of Arizona in the next election," she said. "The counties that still have punch cards are rural and small. They're not rich. I'm saying since they don't have the money to do this, let's just do it."
Under state law, each county is responsible for conducting its own elections. In addition to Gila County, the counties still using punch card systems are Coconino, Greenlee, LaPaz, Mojave, Navajo, Pinal, Santa Cruz and Yuma.
The other six counties, representing more than 80 percent of the state's registered voters, have purchased their own optical scan systems.
Mundy is assuming the bill will pass, but does have concerns about the time frame.
"This is highly specialized equipment, so it must be delivered no later than May 1 for September implementation," she said. "If it's any later, we won't be able to get it set up and learn how to operate it."
Mundy said the county is also concerned that the new equipment will not be cost-free.
"Our budget is pretty tight, and what happens if it's a lease and the county can't afford to pick up the tab after the 2002 election?" she said. "Plus there will be expenses beyond just the equipment with this system."
Otherwise, Mundy is excited and she believes Gila County voters will be, too.
"This almost goes back to the paper ballot concept," she said. "The voter uses an actual ballot on card-stock and a special pen or pencil.
"In the voting booth, they mark right on the ballot. Each polling place has a scanner like a laptop that sits on top of the ballot box. The ballots are fed in, tabulated and recorded onto a cartridge. Then they drop right into the ballot box. At the end of the night, the person in charge does some button pushing and it completes the calculations. The cartridge can be put on a phone line or brought to the courthouse."
Bayless said there are two different optical scan systems being used in Arizona. One requires voters to complete an arrow, and the other to fill in a dot next to the candidate's name.
"One of the nice things is you can sit there and look at it and it will tell you if you voted for George Bush or Jake Flake," Bayless said. "The other thing is that punch cards need to be run through this tabulating machine. The optical scanner is just a much more modern technology and does not lend itself to the kind of error rates that the punch cards do. In addition, the Supreme Court decision issued last December said ... that voters in any given state ought to be able to vote in the same manner. We are not doing that in Arizona, and we should be."
Mundy said both systems are fairly user friendly and voters "should take to it very quickly."
She recommended the county's participation to the supervisors.
"Even though I have some concerns the short calendar being foremost, but also technical support from the vendors I really felt this was an opportunity."
But, she emphasized, town and school elections will not be affected.
"While Globe and Miami contract with the county, Payson conducts its own elections with its own equipment."