Facing a busy election year, Ada County said a year ago that it would ditch its antiquated voting equipment and get a new voting system in place for the 2016 presidential election.
The county has been using outdated, hard-to-find Zip disks and Zip drives, dot-matrix printers and temperamental counting machines to tally and track vote tabulation.
“The risks were becoming exceedingly high for a failure on election night,” said Chief Deputy Clerk Phil McGrane.
For the March 8 Republican presidential primary, Ada County will debut a state-of-art replacement, the first equipment of its kind to be used in Idaho.
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Voters will not notice much difference when they vote. They still will receive a paper ballot and use a pen or pencil to fill in a box indicating their selection.
The biggest change will be how and where the county counts ballots.
MACHINE WILL COUNT YOUR VOTE AND NOTIFY YOU
Ada County has been using a central counting system. When Election Day polls closed at 8 p.m., workers from nearly 140 polling places scurried to deliver ballots to the central election office for counting. Most ballots arrived about the same time, but then sat and waited to be fed into counting machines.
“Ada County is one of the largest jurisdictions in the U.S. still using a central system where we would bring all of the ballots from all over the county to one location to count them,” McGrane said. “What that resulted in is, we would be counting ballots until 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. the morning following the election.”
The new system features immediate ballot counting at the precinct level. Each polling place will have its own counting machine. Instead of depositing a ballot into a locked metal box, a voter will insert it into a scanner, which will read and record the ballot. The scanner will then deposit the ballot into a locked box.
The machine’s screen will inform the voter that his or her ballot has been counted or indicate if there is a problem, such as a vote for two candidates in the same race or a mismarked ballot.
When the polls close, poll workers will take the counting machine to the central elections office. Its results, stored on a removable thumb drive, will be uploaded to a computer — a process that will take less than a minute per machine.
SYSTEM COST LESS THAN EXPECTED
This new system will shave hours off the vote-counting process, McGrane said. That would be good news for candidates, the media and the public, who typically must wait until the following morning to obtain complete results.
The county’s goal is to have results released before midnight, McGrane said.
He is looking forward to that. “The last presidential election I worked 27 hours straight,” he said.
The county paid a lot less for the system than it expected. In 2012, the county estimated it would cost $3.4 million. “I am thrilled to say we got the new system for $1.6 million,” McGrane said.
Several vendors expressed an interest in supplying the county’s new voting system, which made for competitive bids, he said.
The new system, called Verity Voting, is manufactured by Hart InterCivic. The county is paying $900,000 of the tab. Federal money will cover $700,000.
SECURE, NOT PAPERLESS
The system has safeguards to prevent tampering with the thumb drive that stores precinct votes.
The drive is in a locked compartment on the machine. A seal is placed over the compartment. If the seal is broken, the county will not use the data stored on the thumb drive and instead will recount all of the ballots.
The machines do not go online, so there is no risk of hacking. Should the power go out, voters will deposit their ballots into the locked box to be counted later.
If a ballot is incorrectly marked, the machine will reject it and the voter can correct the ballot. Under the old system, an incorrectly marked ballot would not have been caught until ballots were counted at the central office after the polls have closed. Election workers would void the ballot without the voter knowing.
If there is a need for a recount, the county will still have the paper ballots. “No matter what, we still refer back to the paper ballot,” McGrane said.
“It is not like other parts of the United States, where you are using use a touch screen to vote,” he said. “Here, you still will be marking your vote on paper, and we will still be retaining those votes securely and bringing them back on election night.”
GOOD NEWS FOR DISABLED VOTERS
Each polling place in Ada County also will have a new Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant voting device that includes accessibility features such as tactile buttons, audio ballots and compatibility with common adaptive devices.
“Verity’s accessible ballot marking device has been very well received by Idahoans who need assistance due to visual, learning or mobility challenges,” said Scott Hoover, of Disability Rights Idaho, in a news release.
Federal law requires ADA-compliant ballot-marking devices in all federal elections.
The county had been reluctant to use its outdated accessible voting devices because of accuracy and reliability concerns. “With the new equipment, because it is much more user- and logistically friendly, we will be using it in all elections,” McGrane said.
The biggest challenge for the county is getting its 1,000 poll workers trained on the new equipment.
“We have training multiple times a day every day, including evenings and weekends, leading up to the election just to get everyone trained,” he said.
On Election Day, the county will enlist more than 30 tech-savvy Boise State students to rove the county’s polling places providing assistance.
“They are far less intimidated by the equipment,” McGrane said.
Test-drive Ada’s new voting equipment
Ada County is holding a mock election for anyone who wants to learn how to use the new voting system from 1to 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20 at these locations:
▪ Boise Library, 715 S. Capitol Blvd.
▪ Boise Lake Hazel Branch Library, 10489 Lake Hazel Road
▪ Eagle Library, 100 N. Stierman Way
▪ Garden City Library, 6015 N. Glenwood St.
▪ Kuna High School, 637 E. Deer Flat Road
▪ Meridian Cherry Lane Branch Library, 1326 W. Cherry Lane
Election 2016: What to know for the March 8 primary
What’s on the ballot: Republican and Constitution Party presidential primary only. The Democratic presidential caucus is March 22.
Who can vote: Only voters who have affiliated with the Republican Party or the Constitution Party can get the party’s respective presidential primary ballot. Election Day registration is available.
• Feb. 19 to March 4: Canyon County in-person early voting is 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays from Friday, Feb. 19, through Friday, March 4, at the Canyon County Elections Office, 1102 E. Chicago St. in Caldwell.
• Feb 22 to March 4: Ada County in-person early voting is 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays from Monday, Feb.22, through Friday, March 4, at three locations: Ada County Elections Office, 400 Benjamin Lane, near Boise Towne Square; Ada County Indigent Services Building, 252 E. Front St., Suite 199, east of the courthouse (free parking is available) and Meridian City Hall, 33 E. Broadway Ave.
On Saturday, Feb. 27, early voting will be offered from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Benjamin Lane site.
• March 2: Last day to request mail-in absentee ballots. Absentee ballot request forms are available at IdahoVotes.gov. You also may request an absentee ballot in person or in writing from your county clerk’s office. Written requests must list your complete name and address and the address you want the ballot mailed to, and it must be signed by you.
• March 8: Election Day. Polls open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Absentee ballots must be returned to county clerks’ offices by 8 p.m. Look up where you vote via IdahoVotes.gov or the Ada or Canyon county election websites. Call Ada County Elections at 287-6860 or Canyon County Elections at 454-7562 to confirm your polling place.