Oklahoma's voting machines: Out with the old

Bids are being sought for new statewide election system. The new system will be similar to the optical scanner devices that voters have used for nearly 20 years.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT mmcnutt@opubco.com Published: January 2, 2011
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Oklahoma's voting machines are being retired after providing nearly 20 years of service.

Bids are being sought to replace the optical scanner devices, which have been used since 1992. They've lasted nearly twice as long as expected, said Paul Ziriax, state Election Board secretary.

“Because of the age of the devices and the computers, the spare parts are very difficult to come by and are very rare,” he said.

The new machines will operate similarly to the devices now used in the state, Ziriax said. They still will allow voters to use the same kind of ballot.

Voters still will mark the ballots and insert them in the optical scan counters.

“State law requires Oklahoma to use voting devices that are scanners, meaning that we have a paper ballot that is hand-marked by the voter and it is tabulated by scanner when the voter puts that ballot into the voting device,” Ziriax said. “That is not going to change even with the new system. My hope is that the average voter doesn't notice much of any difference at all.”

The OPTECH-III Eagle machines most recently used in the Nov. 2 general election were designed to last 10 years.

State election officials have talked about replacing them for several years, but the devices have continued to perform well.

But with no spare parts available, election workers have to replace worn-out parts from extra devices scattered across the state. The system continues to be reliable and accurate, Ziriax said. It's just much slower than machines now on the market.

Funds are available

No statewide elections are scheduled for this year so this is a good time to replace them, he said. The old machines will be used for local races this spring and for this month's special Senate District 47 election, Ziriax said. Later in the year, some local elections may be conducted on the new equipment.

The present system will remain available until the new system is operational, he said.

Bids should be awarded early this year, and all the devices should be installed in time for elections in 2012.

Optical scanners are needed in each of the nearly 2,300 precincts across the state.

The state has about $26 million remaining from a $33 million federal grant it received in 2005 to buy a new voting system.

The Election Board has used some of the federal money to upgrade software, such as its statewide voter registration database, and some computer hardware.

The $26 million should be sufficient to buy a new system, which will consist of replacing computer equipment and the voting devices, Ziriax said.

The Election Board's computer system that collects information from the voting devices, which has been in place since 1990, will be replaced as well, he said.

“The hardware and software were designed in the 1980s and it's really of an age that the hardware and software really are not upgradeable to current technology anymore,” Ziriax said.