Merced County tests voting machines

MERCED -- Elections officials spent Monday making sure electronic ballot readers were free from digital hiccups in preparation for the California primary election.

In a windowless room in the Merced County administration building's basement, four election workers fed 242 pre-marked ballots through each of the 114 electronic precinct machines, which turn oval ink dots into democracy.

"We want everything to be absolutely accurate," said John Walker, Merced County's special projects coordinator. "The only way is to do mundane things like this."

Double-checking the voting machines, a process open to the public, is done before every election to make sure the democratic process is preserved in the digital age. Walker said issues are rare with the ballot readers, which each cost about $4,000.

The readers record each precinct's results to a data card, which on election night is plugged into a computer, which reads the results in 1.3 seconds.

The testing will continue today and may last into Wednesday. The county keeps the staff small to make sure there aren't any mistakes during the hours of hand-feeding ballots and comparing the results.

On Election Day, the voting office will have spare vote-counting machines on hand in case there are problems.

Despite criticism, electronic voting is much more efficient and accurate than paper ballots, Walker said. "I challenge anyone to find something wrong with the machines," he said.

All this is to prepare the county for Feb. 5, when California voters will head to the polls to pick their party's presidential candidate on Super Tuesday. The state's voters also will decide three propositions relating to taxes, education and term limits.

Stephen Jones, county registrar of voters, predicted turnout will be 60 percent of the 87,675 registered voters.

"It's really bad when we have a lousy turnout," he said. "We have an obligation. When we reap the benefits, we should also be a participant."