Merced gets OK on voting machines

MERCED -- Merced County hasn't been haunted by hanging chads, the ghost of a presidential election past.

But it had been spooked by unapproved voting machines.

That won't be the case this year. Two months ago, California issued a letter certifying the units for use on Nov. 4 and in contests to come.

The decision ends the voting machines' odyssey that has put the state and the manufacturer in civil court fighting over whether penalties should be paid for the mess.

The county, along with four others, bought $500,000 worth of machines two years ago that had never been approved by the state.

The problem? The state must inspect, test and decide whether the machines can be used at the polls. It's meant to prevent election snafus.

The AutoMARK A200, made by Electronic Systems & Software Inc., was being used, but never got the stamp of approval because company officials didn't think it was much different from the previous version.

California's Secretary of State Debra Bowen disagreed.

She discovered last year that Merced, Colusa, Marin, San Francisco and Solano counties bought about 1,000 machines that had never been cleared by her office.

Under California law, all voting equipment must be tested and cleared by state officials before it's used. At the time, the machines also weren't federally certified as required.

The state gave the counties one-time approvals to use the machines in past elections so they wouldn't need to buy replacements.

The electronic units are designed for blind and hearing-impaired voters and were substantially different from their predecessor.

Merced County's Election Office bought 104, one for each precinct to follow state law. They're only used by a handful of voters in each election.

Each unit costs about $5,000. They read ballot information through earphones, then electronically mark ballots for visually impaired voters, allowing them to vote without the help of another person.

The rest of the county's electronic voting machines scan paper ballots to record votes. After the polls close, the machines are connected to a computer that downloads the results.

Bowen filed a lawsuit against ES&S in November, seeking nearly $10 million in damages. Half the money would be given to counties that bought the machines. She's also seeking $5 million to reimburse the counties for the machines, even if they keep them.

It's set to go to trial in April, Secretary of State spokeswoman Nicole Winger said.

Merced County Auditor-Controller Stephen Jones, who oversees elections, said workers have tested all the equipment, as it does before every election.

"It's all locked up," he said.

The county recently bought 10 more scanning machines. Five will be used as spares. It doesn't have any plans to order more equipment, certified or otherwise.