Election-day registration, new technologies in works for 2006

By Mike Dennison
Published June 15th 2005 in Great Falls Tribune (MT)
HELENA — It's a while until the next Election Day, but state voting officials already are prepping for some major changes, including the first-ever chance for Montanans to register and vote on the same day.

This week, election officials across Montana get a close-up look at technology enabling "same-day" voter registration and voting, as well as other steps to make voting and vote-counting easier and more efficient.

"I think it's going to allow us, on a number of fronts, to increase accessibility to the voting process," said Secretary of State Brad Johnson, the state's chief election officer. "And we've done it in a way that allows us to protect the integrity of the process."

The changes on tap include:

    ·  A statewide "voter registration database" that allows people to register to vote on Election Day,                   beginning in the November 2006 general election.
    ·  Permanent absentee ballots, so voters don't have to reapply every election.
    ·  New machines at polling sites that check ballots for mistakes before they go in the ballot box for                 counting.
    ·  Electronic audio voting machines for the blind or other disabled citizens, enabling them to vote privately        without assistants, who otherwise would see their votes.

The changes stem from the federal Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress in the wake of the Florida vote-counting disaster in the 2000 presidential election.

Montana's 2005 Legislature and other Montana officials added their own touches, leading to a proposed final plan outlined last week by Johnson's office. County election officials are attending training sessions this week and next on the voter database and other new technology.

The biggest change for voters and election officials is the voter-registration database, a statewide, computerized list of who's registered to vote.

Once it's up and running by next January, county election officials can check new registered voters against the statewide list instantly, to see if the voter is registered elsewhere in the state.

If so, the registration will be canceled in the voter's old address and transferred to the new address.

This technology allows people to register to vote as late as Election Day, starting in November 2006. However, voters who register less than 30 days before Election Day will have to register and vote at their county courthouse.

Debbie Mart, election supervisor for Cascade County, said that's because the courthouse will be the only place officials can check against the computerized list, to ensure that the person registering hasn't registered or voted elsewhere.

"If they're going to (register late) and vote in that election, they have to vote here at the courthouse," she said. "They can't do it at the polls, because their names won't be on any registry list (at regular polling sites)."

If voters register 30 days before the election or sooner, their names will be on the list at their regular neighborhood polling site, and they can vote there — just as they can now.

Starting this year, voters also can ask to be on the list for "permanent" absentee ballots. Seventy-five days before the election, election officials will mail a "confirmation card" to everyone on the list. Voters who mail that card back will get their absentee ballot in the mail, Mart said. Voters who don't mail back the card won't get their ballot in the mail.

Polling sites across Montana also will get some new machines by next year.

About 650 electronic audio voting machines — one for each polling site — will allow blind citizens or other disabled citizens to vote privately without assistance. Equipped with headphones, the machines walk the voter through the ballot and then read back to them how they voted. Once the voter confirms that the ballot is correct, the machine spits out a printed ballot that will be counted.

The cost is $3.3 million in federal funds, plus another $2 million to ensure the machines work and are accessible.

The state also plans to help counties buy "precinct counters," which are machines that check completed ballots at the polling site for any mistakes. If a voter "over-voted" by marking more than one candidate in a race, the machine will spit out the ballot and let the voter fill out a new ballot.

However, some counties — like Cascade — won't be buying the counters.

The state is paying for only half the cost, and Mart said Cascade County doesn't have the money to spend on the precinct counters.

The county already spent considerable money on new computers to handle the statewide voter database, she said.

Amanda Kelly, the election administrator in sparsely populated Judith Basin County, also said she has no plans to buy precinct counters. The county has only four precincts and 2,200 registered voters, and counts its ballots manually, she said.
"We have manual ballots, and I don't plan on switching, unless they make me," Kelly said.

Mark Simonich, chief policy adviser to Johnson, said the office won't force the counters on anyone. But the state hopes counties can upgrade their computers and Internet connection to handle the statewide voter database, so same-day registration and voting can occur efficiently.

"It's a real step forward," he said if the same-day registration and voting. "This will hopefully allow people to be more involved, and make the effort (to vote), even if it is a late effort."

Reach Tribune Capitol Bureau Chief Mike Dennison at (406) 442-9493 or by fax at (406) 442-9413. His e-mail is [email protected]