Getting the Vote Right in Shelby County 

Optiscan machines that create a paper trail are the way to revamp our ever-snarled local election system.

Another Shelby County election, another election controversy. This time, it's the County Commission race between Reginald Milton and Martavius Jones, where a thin 26-vote margin separates unofficial winner Milton from recount-demander Jones.  

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The time's ripe to finally move to "paper trail" voting machines. In fact, this may be our last chance.

Welcome to the credibility gap: Shelby County's record of election mishaps is too long to recount here. Highlights include thousands of voters being incorrectly turned away on Election Day (2010) to thousands of voters being given the wrong ballots (2012) to an overturned local election (litigation still pending). A state government audit of our county's election office concluded that it had "an inability to conduct elections without significant inaccuracies."

Other than that, though, it's fine.

The public has a similar lack of confidence in the integrity of our elections, and both the County Commission and Memphis City Council recently passed resolutions saying they had no confidence in the election administrator.

This week, candidate Jones told the Democratic Party's Primary Board that the election machine "tapes" posted at each polling place tell a different story from the electronic voting machine-generated unofficial count, making the Jones-Milton race a literal tie. The Primary Board then demanded the raw election return data from the Election Commission in an attempt to discover whether Milton really won over Jones. And there's legal uncertainty over the kind of recount — manual or automatic — that Jones can demand, and when. 

None of this would be an issue if we replaced our purely electronic touch-screen Diebold voting machine system with an "optical scan" voting system that creates a voter-verified hard copy "paper trail." 

The "optiscan" system would be familiar to anyone who's ever taken the SAT, the ACT, the TCAP, or any other standardized test. Using a No. 2 pencil, voters fill in bubbles on a "scantron" sheet to mark their candidate preference, and insert the sheet into a machine that electronically scans and records the votes while locking the hard copy sheets away for safekeeping. In the event of a Jones/Milton-like squeaker election, a charge of fraud, or a computer glitch, the hard copies can be compared to the electronic record.

Optiscan is the national trend. In 32 states, it's either used statewide or for a majority of voters. Nationally, only 1 in 4 voters uses a purely paperless touch-screen system like ours. Here in Tennessee, optiscan has been used successfully for more than a decade in Pickett and Hamilton (Chattanooga) counties.

Not only would optiscan machines keep elections honest and accurate, they would cut waiting time at the polls. At your polling place right now, only three voters at a time can vote, on three different touch-screen machines. With optiscan, 10 voters could take their time at 10 privacy carrels filling out their ballots. When they're ready, they can then feed their ballot into the machine. Think about that this August, as you wait in line for the voters in front of you to slog their way through the "long ballot," filled with judicial candidates who come up once every 8 years. 

If we buy now, we can get new machines at half price. Our current voting machines are about 10 years old, and will need to be replaced in the next few years anyway. And right now, millions of dollars of federal funds are sitting in a bank account in Nashville, available for us to help pay for the new machines. These "Help America Vote Act" (HAVA) funds can only be used for election reform. 

But if we don't ask for them this year, they could be given away to other Tennessee counties. That's why the Election Commission recently asked an internal county budget committee for $1.5 million in capital funds for optiscan machines, expecting a state HAVA grant match of $2.7 million or so. The Election Commission later withdrew that request in deference to another capital budget project, but it was right the first time. 

Optiscan will require us to pay ongoing paper costs, which can be expensive. But we'll likely save money in the long run, because you need about one-third fewer optiscan machines than touch-screen machines, with resulting savings in machine maintenance, storage, and transport. 

We need voting-machine reform now more than ever, and this may be our last chance. Tell the County Commission and Election Commission to budget for optiscan this year. The next time there's a close election, we'll all be thanking them for it.

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