A study by Augusta State University students says new electronic voting machines are slower than the old punch-card system - but not slow enough to justify purchasing as many additional machines as Columbia County's elections director wants.
Commissioners last week received results of the study, conducted by members of Dr. Saundra Reinke's masters-level public administration students at ASU. More of the new touch-screen devices will be needed before the 2004 presidential election, the study says.
"In order to be better equipped for a large turnout, there should be 104 more machines," said Marion Cantrell, one of the study's authors.
To reach that figure, Cantrell said students timed voters in six precincts during last August's primary - the last in which punch-card ballots were used - and then returned with their stopwatches for the November general election.
Voters using the punch-card system took an average of 5 minutes, 17 seconds, Cantrell said. Touch-screen voters took slightly longer: 5 minutes, 55 seconds. By predicting the number of registered voters next year, reducing that number to the percentage likely to show up at the polls, and multiplying by the time it takes the average voter to cast a ballot, Cantrell said the students estimate 347 machines will be needed next year.
That's 104 more than the county used in 2002.
"We had estimated we would need 100 more machines," said County Administrator Steve Szablewski. There is $260,000 set aside in the county's budget for purchasing the new machines, which cost about $2,600 each.
The number still sounds too low to Elections Director Deborah Marshall.
"They said 104 more for the 2004 presidential election, but my prediction of what I need overall was 200 more machines for that election," she said.
The elections office is splitting the county's five largest voting precincts because of population growth, bumping the county up to 42 precincts, Marshall said. She's concerned that even though the study demonstrates the electronic machines are slower, the county will have only 343 of the machines available for next year's vote compared to the 535 punch-card machines that were used in the 2000 presidential election.
After the state purchased 246 of the electronic machines for Columbia County, commissioners turned down Marshall's request for more of the devices prior to the 2002 general election. That election drew complaints about long lines, and afterward Marshall renewed her request for additional voting machines.
"Basically, what I'm trying to do is play catch-up," she said.
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