Voters lean to, ‘It’s only a machine,’ after early kinks|[6/7/06]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Early-morning tensions gave way Tuesday to mostly smooth sailing for the debut of touch-screen voting at Warren County’s 22 precincts.

&#8220Everything sort of went like clockwork,” said Jean Sturgis, precinct manager at Calvary Baptist Church on Old Mississippi 27.

The transition was aided by a two-contest ballot and only about one in six registered voters going to polls.

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&#8220It was a small ballot and I think that helped,” Sturgis said. &#8220It was a good practice time to get ready for November.” General election turnouts are usually higher.

With about 5,200 votes cast countywide, an average among the 153 Diebold machines was 34 voters during the 12-hour day, or one every 20 minutes.

Early in the primary day, some poll workers reported difficulty in getting the machines to perform, with one going so far as to predict the election would be voided. As the hours wore on, fewer problems were encountered.

&#8220I like it,” said Lori West, who voted at Warren Central Junior High with her husband, Jeff. &#8220I think it’s probably going to make them more accurate.”

Warren County had used optical scanners since 1990. Voters used a black felt-tip pen to connect arrows by their choices on paper ballots that were then fed into a scanner, which retained them for an electronic or, if needed, manual tally.

&#8220At the end of the day, it’s a blessing you don’t have to count the stack,” said Sandra Atkins, a poll worker who instructed voters on the machines at American Legion Post 3 on Monroe Street.

Statewide, 77 of 82 counties accepted about $18 million for 5,752 touch-screen machines built by Diebold Election Systems, Inc. The funds came from the Help America Vote Act of 2002, enacted after controversy over punch-card ballots cast in some Florida counties were disputed in the 2000 presidential election.

Warren County voters, usually with a little step-by-step instruction from a poll worker, gave the machines good reviews, calling the touch-screen process &#8220easy,” &#8220very simple” and &#8220no problem at all.”

Younger voters, like Kendall Hueil, 21, and recent Vicksburg High graduate Michael Green, 18, voting for the first time at the American Legion precinct, were expected to take to the machines quickly, and said they did. Many older voters, however, said they also found the computerized system easier, and even preferable &#8220anytime” to the old paper ballot.

&#8220It’s the first time, so I won’t say which I prefer yet,” said Exelena Martin, 73, who required some instruction from poll worker Louis Sullivan at the American Legion as she cast her vote, but nevertheless admitted afterward, &#8220It’s all right, once you’ve learned.”

The American Legion precinct suffered one of the few hitches of the day, struggling to bring the machines online as doors opened and voters began arriving at 7 a.m. Voters either left and returned later in the day or voted by affidavit, and the machines were brought up to speed at midmorning.

Some, like George Smith, voting early at Carpenters’ Union Hall on U.S. 61 South, called the system &#8220pretty much explanatory.” Others asked for some direction from workers, such as Helen Caldwell, who asked Vicksburg Junior official John Shorter to walk her through the four-step program after her machine’s screen said her vote hadn’t been cast.

Afterward, though, Caldwell blamed the brief confusion on her not reading the directions on the screen and said the process was &#8220very simple” and promised to return to the precinct to vote again in the general election in November.

&#8220I think this is going to be just fine,” she said. &#8220It’s just a machine.”