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.
Faster results expected
The Election Board's main computer has direct connections to Oklahoma, Tulsa and Cleveland counties, but still receives results from the 74 other counties using nine modems that transmit data at slow speeds, he said.
The new computer system will allow for faster connections, which could help in getting quicker results, he said.
“It will still be an accurate and reliable system like we have now,” Ziriax said. “I think you'll see enhanced security features that ensure the integrity of our elections.
“Because it's a more modern system, in addition to maintaining accuracy and reliability as our primary requirements, we think you'll also see improved speed and efficiency,” he said.
The optical scanner devices used by Oklahoma have been reliable and accurate since they first were used in the presidential primary in 1992. The statewide system replaced a county-by-county system, in which voters in all but six counties cast ballots tabulated by hand.
No election has been cast in doubt because of the statewide voting system used by Oklahoma, Ziriax said.
“Our current system has performed admirably,” Ziriax said. “It has exceeded the best expectations ... about the potential of moving to a statewide uniform system. Part of the reason is we bought good equipment. Another part of the reason is we've taken very, very good care of them and had good maintenance plans and found ways to make them out live their life expectancy.
“We can only hope that the winning bid in the competitive bid process is the same kind of quality and that we're able to come up with a plan to make it last a long time as well,” he said.
The federal grant money was given to Oklahoma and other states to help them get their voting systems into compliance with federal regulation, which includes providing a method for voters with disabilities to cast ballots privately and independently.
In 2006, changes were made to Oklahoma's voting system to meet those federal requirements. Voters with vision problems and those who have trouble marking a ballot have the option to use telephones at every polling place and county election board office.
It's likely the new election system will include audio features which will allow disabled voters to put on headphones and cast their ballots.
The money may only be used to buy new voting systems and make other upgrades to existing systems to comply with federal voting regulations, Ziriax said.
The money can't be used for the Election Board's operating costs or to hold elections, he said.
“Our hope is that that will be sufficient funding and we will not require any additional funding from the Legislature,” Ziriax said.