BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County’s new paper ballot voting equipment is being readied for voters to use during the current election cycle, beginning with early voting for the party’s primaries.
A major milestone took place on Monday as the new machines were programmed under bipartisan oversight. Candidates and party officials were invited to inspect the machines and witness the preparation process. The media were allowed to observe.
Election day for the Democratic and Republican party primaries is May 3.
Early voting for the primaries begins in Blountville on April 13 and extends to Bristol and Kingsport on April 21. Early voting ends April 28.
Sullivan County election officials have been considering new voting machines for about five years. The last time the county bought new machines was in 2006.
Now county voters can say goodbye to spinning the wheel and voting on a computer screen.
In January, the Sullivan County Commission approved Election Administrator Jason Booher’s request to purchase new voting machines, a week after the Sullivan County Election Commission, a bipartisan group, voted in the unanimity to make the change.
The purchase was auctioned off, bids vetted, and the recommendation is for a system from Hart InterCivic, the company that produced the machines the county has used since 2006.
This will help to make the change cheaper: the company will take back the old machines from the trade and grant a discount to the county.
Booher said the new system will work like this:
The 99.9% of registered voters in Sullivan County who Booher says have state-issued ID with a bar code on the back will be registered by having that bar code scanned.
This will give them a piece of paper with a QR code (instead of the current four-digit code) which they will present to another poll worker.
The code will be read by equipment that will print the bespoke ballot, the voter will take it to a private area to mark it with a pen, and the completed ballot will be sent through a scanner and then dropped into a box postal.
Booher said that even if someone could get their hands on a ballot that had been scanned, the scanner would not read it a second time.
Booher demonstrated the entire process on Monday.
A few more points about the new system:
The three main components (ID scanner that delivers the QR code, ballot printer and ballot scanner) are individual devices. Neither are connected.
Ballots must be marked in blue or black ink (pens will be provided at the polling station).
The scanner recognizes potential errors, such as a voter scoring too many choices in a race, and returns the ballot with an on-screen explanation of what went wrong. He will do the same if a voter submits a blank ballot. In both cases, poll workers will be on hand to assist the elector if necessary.
Although areas are available to mark your ballot out of sight of others, those who wish can simply mark their ballot without entering such an area and place it in the scanner.
As demonstrated to The Times News by Booher, the scanner picks up the smallest mark(s), but it will spit out a ballot and notify the voter if the mark is too small. Similarly, if a voter marks all the way through one candidate’s “box” and the pin slips slightly into the next candidate’s “box”, the scanner will spit out the ballot as an overvote.
If a voter makes major mistakes and hasn’t put their ballot in the scanner, they can request a new ballot. In these cases, there is a process that polling officials will use to “spoil” the first ballot. Spoiled ballots will be retained so that there is a record of all ballots printed, to be balanced against all ballots counted at the close of voting.
The total cost of the new voting equipment was estimated at $766,456.
Due to a federal state grant and $110,391 rebate Hart pays for old machines, county commission-approved expenses (including a 10% contingency requested by the Elections Commission) were $413,000.