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INTRO: Elections across the nation are left in the hands of local jurisdictions because they best know how to cater to the local population. But the federal government has started to take on a larger role in local elections - starting with funding. Congresses has funneled nearly 4 billion dollars through state governments to local jurisdictions. The main purpose is to enhance public confidence in elections. KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports on how Nevada is taking one of the boldest steps.
SOUND: Weight lifting, up and under: Last one, come on, push, push, push, common come on, come on, grrrrrrrr, grrrr.
PLASKON: This weightlifter plans to flex his political muscle in a little while. He'll step right out side the gym and vote at trailer in the parking lot.
WEIGHTLIFTER: Ya I will definitely go put my two sense in if it is worth even that.
PLASKON: It's called early voting. Polling places are open for 18-days at popular businesses around the city instead of just one day. More than 44 percent of the voters traditionally take advantage of it. Programs like this around the country are made possible through new federal funding aimed at increasing voter confidence, something that's definitely lacking in this weightlifter.
WEIGHTLIFTER: I think it is all a rip-off-scam anyway.
PLASKON: After the 2000 election debacle shook this man's AND the nations trust at the polls, congress passed the Help America Vote Act to leave the chads behind and deploy new voting technology. As of last week, states have spent half of the 3.9 billion dollars the act appropriated. Many bought direct recording electronic voting machines, or DREs that only keep an electronic record of votes, but Nevada spent 9 million dollars this year to do what no other state has, go back to paper.
POLLING SOUND: This is your voting card, you are registered as a non-partisan voter. Okay? Just follow the directions on the screen. It is that simple.
PLASKON: Voters here still use electronic machines, but unlike other states Nevada is for the first time using printers on DREs.
SOUND: Printing, peeping and printing.
PLASKON: Each voter can verify on paper that is printed by the machine how they voted and then the paper is tucked away into a roll as an election record. There ARE a few problems. In the first week, paper in the machines was incorrectly threaded and voters were confused by the print out that is protected in a black box behind a plexi glass window. The print out is kept in the DRE for re-counts and to prevent voters from getting the record and selling their votes. Registrar Larry Lomax says people assume it's a receipt for them to take.
LOMAX: They are grabbing at the printer, trying to get at that paper print out.
PLASKON: Avoiding confusion at the polls is just one reason registrars across the country oppose these printers. They also oppose Nevada using them says Secretary of State Dean Heller.
HELLER: I have had election officials call from across the country, they don't identify themselves will call my elections division, say we understand that you are adding a paper trail to these electronic voting machines, I hope you fail.
PLASKON: Since most states have DREs without printers, he says election officials can continue to claim there is no proof that electronic voting machines have ever failed. But this secretary of state isn't convinced; he wants proof they are working right.
HELLER: We shouldn't be trusting government 100 percent of the time to be 100 percent accurate, that usually doesn't work well.
PLASKON: There are a few examples of DRE failures. This year in Florida, electronic votes were corrupted and voting machines suspiciously didn't record ballots from 154 voters. Heller says electioneers theorized as to why, saying 154 democratic voters probably accidentally walked into the republican-only election and walked out without voting.
HELLER: That's a good theory, but prove it to me. And they can't. It is easier to come up with theories than it is to give facts and with the paper trail there is a lot of accountability attached to this process and frankly if it does show some flaws, I want to know and I think the public does too.
PLASKON: After the election, Nevada will be the only state to conduct a wide-scale audit of each vote on DREs to see if they really are reporting the votes they get. Clark County Assistant Registrar of Voters, Donna Cardinelli knows the highly scrutinized machines.
CARDINELLI: I've been testing it here for two weeks and it is wonderful. And I am a person with integrity and those voting machines have been counting your ballots right all along, there is not question in my mind.
PLASKON: This kind of confidence in DREs without printers is common among other state's officials. Georgia's Election Division Director, staunchly opposed printers on DREs in testimony before congress last month. Using 10 steps from Kennesaw State University's Center for Election Systems, Georgia estimates that there is less than 1 in a billion chance of tampering and software glitches slipping by election officials. Georgia is finally using the audio capability of DREs to serve the visually impaired. Kara Sinkule of the Georgia Elections Division says asking voters to verify a printed record is a step backwards - once again disenfranchising visually impaired voters who won't be able to see the print out.
SINKULE: We are just saying lets take our time, lets put federal standards in place. The state of Nevada and the people of Nevada if they feel this is right for their state then we certainly have no opposition to that.
PLASKON: The National Association of State Election Directors HAS certified Nevada's printers, but the newly created federal Election Assistance Commission won't publish standards for another 9 months. Meanwhile, the commission is dolling billions to states that continue to use the money to buy DREs without printers. Maryland recently agreed to buy 56 million dollars worth of DREs without printers. The cost of adding printers to them could be prohibitive in the future. That was Georgia's conclusion when it estimated it would cost 8-to-10 million dollars to retrofit its DREs for printing. Las Vegas has 2-thousand old refrigerator-sized voting machines it will try to retrofit for printers. If it cant they'll have to be replaced at a cost of at least 5.6 million dollars says Clark County Registrar Larry Lomax.
LOMAX: We will either get a printer developed and put on those, none exists right now. It will be an expensive proposition.
PLASKON: Over the past 10 years the election company Diebold has earned 13.5 billion dollars from local governments around the nation, much of it from selling 75 thousand printerless DREs. Bob Cohen of the Election Technology Council, an election trade association created in December, says if other states adopt policy changes like Nevada's, they'll have to scrap the billions invested.
KOHEN: Its like if you are buying a car and your car is a five speed and you've made the policy decision the five speed does everything you wanna do but you decide you want an automatic, then I guess you are out there shopping for a new car."
PLASKON: States ARE shopping. 16 have considered adding printers. California, Illinois and Missouri have mandates to implement printed records of each vote like Nevada. Tomorrow, representatives from Idaho, Utah, Georgia, Arizona, California, Washington, New York, Colorado, Tennessee, Florida and New Mexico will be in Las Vegas to observe the DREs with vote printers. Sequoia Voting Systems that manufactured the machines will host these potential customers. Alfi Charles of Sequoia says the contract with Nevada pumps new life into Sequoia, which reported losses of nearly 3.5 million dollars last year.
CHARLES: Right we provided some very attractive pricing for Nevada because we thought it would be a good place to demonstrate and there are professional election administrators across the state and I think that will help us in the long-run.
PLASKON: Nevada's new DREs cost 26-hundred dollars each, more than twice the cost of older machines that don't print. The expense has given some confidence in the elections. Mohammed Miah Agadir, a cook stepping out of an early voting site remembers voting back in Bangladesh elections on a paper system.
AGADIR: They spend a lot of money on paperwork, but here I think they are saving a lot of money. All over the world we should use a computer like this, it is very modern technology and we save more time, more energy, more man power.
PLASKON: County election expenses have doubled from an average of 4.4 million per year prior to the year 2000 to an average of 8.8 million dollars after 2000. This year the county will spend a record 12.8 million dollars - partially to go back to paper records. After the primary on September 7th, county workers will pull those paper records from the DREs. They'll cross reference them with what the DRE reports to see if they show the same results, verifying if at least Nevada's investment in DREs is paying off with more trustworthy results.
Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR