October 5th, 2006 15:22 EST
West Virginia preparing for technologically advanced general election
Over the past year, West Virginia elections officials have been actively working to introduce new measures to ensure accuracy and ease the voting process for its citizens at polling places across the state.
In Morgantown, Monongalia County officials are now preparing for the first general election since electronic voting machines were implemented county wide last May, in accordance with the federal Help America Vote Act.
The legislation helped to guard against future irregularities in part by providing states with funding to purchase electronic voting machines, making vote casting more accessible and more accurate, especially for senior citizens and voters with disabilities.
Six years ago, in counties across Florida, droves of voters, many of them senior citizens, faced poorly designed paper ballots and a flawed election system that in the following weeks would nullify thousands of votes in one of the closest, most controversial electoral outcomes the United States has ever seen. Public officials vowed to never allow such widespread voting irregularities again.
Nearly two years later, on October 29, 2002, George W. Bush, the same man who was awarded Presidential victory in the wake of the Sunshine State’s fiasco, signed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) into law.
In West Virginia, the state with the nation’s highest median age, the new measures could be especially helpful in curbing irregularities similar to those experienced by Florida voters and officials.
Under HAVA, each of West Virginia’s 55 counties is required to install at least one electronic voting machine in each precinct, said Ben Beakes, chief of staff under Secretary of State Betty Ireland. Although West Virginia was able to place at least one electronic machine in each precinct, 34 counties installed the new machines at all precincts, Beakes said.
If counties wish to expand beyond the single machine requirement, they must determine how to fund the expansion. Monongalia, along with 33 other counties, opted for a comprehensive overhaul.
“This county decided to go county wide,” said April Davies, supervisor of elections in Monongalia County. “We eliminated the paper ballot and went with machines.”
Davies said she doesn’t expect the already high voter turnout among senior citizens to increase, but for the most loyal age demographic on Election Day, the procedure will be easier.
“Senior citizens vote regardless,” Davies said. “Generally you have a higher percentage of senior citizens voting than any other age group.”
Prior to the May primary, election officials brought several new machines into senior service facilities throughout the state. Beakes said senior citizens were able to test the electronic machines to better comprehend how they worked.
“We wanted to make sure they understand how to use the machines,” he said.
Demonstrations were held at several sites in Monongalia County, including The Village at Heritage Point, an assisted living facility for approximately 140 residents over 62 years of age.
“They [the residents] were a little hesitant at first,” said Janet Graber, director of resident services at The Village. Graber says however, that most residents quickly established a comfort level with the new machines.
At The Village, participants had a chance to explore the new machines then actually cast votes in a mock election weeks prior to heading to the polls.
“Voter Registration kind of turned it into a game,” Graber said. “They didn’t need to be afraid of them [the machines].”
According to Beakes, officials received positive feedback following the demonstration sessions as well as the May primary.
“We were encouraged by how many senior citizens actually liked the machines,” Beakes said. “There are so many things about these machines that people didn’t realize.”
Touch screen voting alleviates the discomfort experienced in paper balloting by arthritic voters.
Magnifying screens are provided for the visually impaired.
On screen vote confirmation designed to reduce confusion virtually eliminates the possibility of voting for a candidate more than once.
Beakes said only a few minor glitches occurred during the May elections, but can be attributed to human error in preparation for the election, and can be easily adjusted for. If the May primary was any indication, come November voters can expect efficient returns through an efficient vote casting system.
“The machines worked fine,” he said. “They worked perfectly.”