In 2008, the Tennessee state legislature passed what is known as the Voter Confidence Act. The act assumes that voters will become more confident in election outcomes if our state converts all counties to using paper ballots rather than the electronically counted results we use in Shelby County today.
The act also directs the counties to use optical scanning systems to tally the votes on the paper ballots. It seems to clearly call for purchasing optical scanning devices, certified by the Elections Assistance Commission, that can meet the 2005 standards required by federal law under the Help America Vote Act. One other point of interest is that all counties are required to be in compliance with the provisions of this act no later than November 2010.
When it meets in January, the General Assembly should revise the act's deadline provisions or, better, rethink it altogether.
We estimate the costs of printing paper ballots for each Shelby countywide election to be about $400,000. There would be additional costs for the secure handling and custody of these printed ballots and additional manpower costs as well. Using paper ballots creates the need for what is known as "ballot-on-demand." Each precinct would print individual ballots for voters when they present themselves — a far slower process than using the touch screens we have in place today.
Overall costs for replacing the touch-screen system with optical scanners and ballot-on-demand would run to about $12 million for Shelby County. That money would be provided by federal dollars, per the Help America Vote Act. However, the act requires only one apparatus per precinct. We have great population disparities between precincts — with some having as few as 1,500 voters and others having as many as 5,000. It is obvious that there would be longer waits to vote if we limited ourselves to a single federally funded voting apparatus per precinct. And additional voting machines would have to be paid for by Shelby County taxpayers.
Our current touch-screen system is what is known as a direct recording electronic system. Votes are recorded electronically and securely, and, best of all, this system has been paid for already, at a cost of $4 million to $6 million. Half of the funds used to pay for our current system were federal dollars, with the other half paid by Shelby County taxpayers.
The federal funds paid for only one machine per precinct. To properly service our voters, Shelby County purchased additional machines to accommodate each precinct.
The optical scanner machines actually offer little difference in the way votes are tallied. Once you complete your ballot, your vote will be scanned into the Opti-Scan counting machine — yes, electronically. About all this new mandated voting system offers us is a paper record. Many people, who do not understand the security of touch-screen voting, advocate a paper ballot trail. This is akin to using a typewriter instead of a computer. Why go backward, at a cost of $12 million, plus additional Shelby County taxpayer funds?
The outcry from voters in favor of paper ballots is nonexistent. The outcry from candidates and elected officials is also nonexistent. The need for paper ballots and optical scanners is arguably nonexistent. Why, then, are we doing this? The arguments by those in favor of paper ballots are that it provides a paper trail of votes and that the federal government has approved the money for this backward technology.
In these difficult economic times, we do not need to spend money just because it is there. We do not need to create new costs for elections, unless we are improving or upgrading the process to benefit voters.
We are currently using the most accurate, secure, and state-of-the-art voting system in Shelby County. We have paid for it, and it is operating very well. Let the counties that need election system upgrades have the allocated funds to purchase the voting system best for their communities. Give the rest back to the federal government. No doubt they can use it for better causes. Rich Holden, a Republican, is chief administrator for the Shelby County Election Commission.