Q & A: Gregory Duckett, 

Chairman of the Shelby County Election Commission

Local voters will never have to worry about hanging chads ever again. Not that they really did before.

Shelby County expects to spend $4 million for new voting equipment early next year. The county is considering bids from two companies: Diebold, which already sold the county some machines for early voting, and Electronic Systems & Software. The Flyer spoke with election commission chair Gregory Duckett about the necessity of the new machines, as well as the complications that could develop with the new system.

-- By Ben Popper

Flyer: Why is Shelby County buying new voting machines?

Duckett: Basically, there are three fundamental responses to that question. Under the federal Help America Vote Act [HAVA], we are required to update election equipment to ensure compliance with their standards. Our system, as it stands today, does not meet the handicapped accessibility standards. The second issue, which we have been in ongoing dialogue with the state about, is whether our machines qualify as digital recording equipment as outlined by HAVA. To digress, HAVA was principally enacted to eliminate lever and punch-card voting machines. The initial ruling we received is that our equipment, albeit 20 years old, is viewed as a first-generation electronic system, and as such, we would not be entitled to 100 percent of the federal funding.

So the county actually ends up at a disadvantage because of its early investment in electronic voting machines?

Correct. Now the third issue is, with our current electronic system, if we have a contested election in every race on the August 2006 ballot, the system will simply not be able to accommodate all of those races. These big races occur on an eight-year cycle.

What is VVPAT, and what does it mean for voters?

VVPAT is "voter verifiable paper audit trail," which is not currently required at the state level. Several other states have required it. There are several issues that pertain to auditing. One is the ability to have an internal audit that the election commission can use to verify the results of the election. VVPAT is a step further, because it provides for each individual voter a record of how they voted, so if there is a challenge, those individual receipts can be audited to determine the outcome of the election. Also any unique challenges to a voter could be audited.

So it's about the level of transparency between the voter and the system?

True, but the philosophical issue associated with VVPAT is to what extent, at the end of the day, can a given voter be identified by a VVPAT system. One of our protections under the current system, the electronic system, is that they are randomly stored. That means I can't go back and say, "Ben was the fifth person in line. This is the fifth ballot."

While VVPAT provides protection against potential disenfranchisement, it also reduces

voter privacy?

Exactly, and you don't want people using that to intimidate voters.

Are you worried about voters learning to use these new machines?

With any transition, there is the inherent concern of confusion on the part of the public, so a facet of this process will be intensive education and outreach. That is one of the reasons we want to get this system in by the May primaries, so we can have a test within a smaller election setting. We will also host community-awareness sessions. A decision needs to be made by the middle of January if we are going to have the system in place for the May primary.

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