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COUNTY GEARS UP TO COUNT VOTES.

Byline: Randi Bjornstad The Register-Guard

A bit of advice for Lane County voters: Starting now, make sure you always have a black ballpoint pen in good working condition when it comes time to cast your ballot.

That means no pencil, no markers, no gel pens or glitter, no red ink or green ink or even blue ink.

If you use anything but plain black ink, the county's new optical scan vote-counting machines just might spit your ballot back out.

Get the ink right, and the new voting system - which replaces the much-maligned punchcards that called the entire 2000 U.S. presidential election into question - should be pretty simple for voters and not too bad for election workers either, said Annette Newingham, head of Lane County's elections office.

Thanks to a federal grant to help the last three counties in Oregon to discard punchcards for optical scanners - Lane County being the very last of the 36 - the Feb. 3 election will be the first time voters here see the new-style ballots in their mailboxes.

They're bigger and heavier than the old punchcards. People vote right on the ballot - they no longer will have those infamous chads to poke out with a pen tip or a toothpick or a pushpin from the family bulletin board.

Instead, they'll see the "head" and "tail" of an arrow pointing to their choice and will use their pens - black ballpoint, remember - to fill in the "shaft" of the arrow in between. Not with a check mark, an "X," a thin line or a circle, but with nice, bold strokes that finish the arrow neatly and completely.

But don't worry: All those details will be included on an instruction sheet with the ballot and the envelopes needed to return it by the Feb. 3 deadline.

And that's when the fun begins for Newingham and her staff.

"We've tested all four of our machines - space is the major issue for us because these are so much bigger than the old punchcard counters," Newingham said.

The county's elections office will be moving to larger quarters later this year, in time for the general election in November, she said, but that means working in cramped quarters this time and again for the May primary.

"We've pushed all the (filing cabinets) back as far as we can - our break room is getting smaller and smaller - and we've bought narrower tables that we can take to our new location to make room for the machines," Newingham said.

So far, the scanners seem to work fine, although they shoot the scanned ballots out with far more energy than precision, she said.

"Everybody who sees that has a good laugh - we had to put bigger boxes at the ends of the machines to make sure we catch the ballots as they come flying out."

The machines, about 5 feet long, require three people to operate, Newingham said.

One person feeds the ballots in, while another in the center monitors the computer and watches for rejected ballots. A third will capture the spewed-out votes in batches and prepare them for long-term storage as required by law in case of a recount or other questions about the validity of an election.

The computer screens on the scanners won't tell how voters marked their ballots, only how many ballots have been tallied, Newingham said.

The actual vote will be recorded on a disk that will be run through separate tabulation machines.

Other election workers will be on hand to check rejected ballots and figure out how people intended to vote.

The old punchcard counters could read 1,000 ballots per minute, while the optical scan counters handle about 400, depending on the complexity of the ballot, Newingham said.

But in past elections, her office often used only one punchcard counter, and she anticipates using at least three of the optical scanners, so the total time to count ballots shouldn't be much different.

Above all, those who get their ballots and don't understand what to do should be sure to call the elections office for help, Newingham said.

"This is a change, and we know it will be confusing to some people."

MARKING YOUR BALLOT

Use only a black ink ballpoint pen

Make a bold stroke to complete the arrow (at left, circled in red):

Check marks, X's, circles or thin lines will not count

Ballots must be received by Feb. 3

BALLOT PROBLEMS?

Call: Lane County Elections, 682-4234

COMING UP

Saturday: An explanation of the taxes: corporate, personal income, senior and others

Sunday: 20 Lane County residents tell us how they're voting

Monday: A look at proposed cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services

Tuesday: Proposed cuts to the Department of Corrections

Wednesday: Proposed public safety cuts

Thursday: Proposed cuts to K-12 and higher education

Friday: Proposed cuts to the state court system

CAPTION(S):

Elections chief Annette Newingham demonstrates a new optical scan ballot counter.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Elections; Scanners: New machines read only one kind of ink
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 16, 2004
Words:821
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