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New system includes paper trail

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County voters will notice something familiar about the voting stands set up at their polling locations.

In the spring primary, those stands had a dial-spinning device allowing voters to identify the candidates they wanted to support.

In today’s election, voters will be marking paper ballots on top of those stands now featuring a flat surface, as refurbished by the county’s highway workers.

“It seems to have worked out well,” said Don McNulty, a mechanic in the highway yard who recently set up a voting stand and showed how the stand’s flaps were retained to provide privacy.

The refurbishing work was one part of the county’s transition to a paper-trail voting system to meet state and federal requirements and to replace the e-Slate voting machines used since 2006.

Mirror photo by Kay Stephens / Highway worker Don McNulty sets up a voting stand. McNulty showcased how the stand’s flaps were retained to provide privacy to voters in today’s election.

In April, the county elections board and county commissioners board voted in favor of purchasing a voting system from Election Systems and Software of Omaha, Neb., at a cost of $894,307.

The cost is to be paid with money in the county’s 2017 bond issue, offset by a $126,000 grant from the federal Help America Vote Act.

The county will also be in a position to apply for a portion of the $90 million the state is making available to help cover the bill. Recent legislation included language allowing counties to request up to 60 percent of expenses incurred for buying paper-trail voting systems.

Blair and Cambria counties are two of the 23 counties in the state that will be introducing ES&S voting equipment today, said Sarah Mahon, the western Pennsylvania account manager for ES&S.

Mahon, who assisted Blair County personnel on Friday with a test run of the equipment at the highway yard, said that four counties — Centre, Indiana, Lawrence and Greene — used ES&S’s voting system for the first time in the spring.

“It went very well at all of those counties,” she said.

And if any problems surface today, Mahon said the company will have personnel ready to respond. William Penn Co. of Pittsburgh, which the county contracted with for ballot-printing services, will be available to respond too, she added.

“William Penn has been a longtime partner of ES&S,” she said.

During Friday’s test run, county elections Director Sarah Seymour and Assistant Director Virginia Clapper marked test ballots, then fed the ballots into a vote-counting scanner that could read their choices.

Seymour also cast some test votes using a touchscreen voting machine, one of which will be available at every voting precinct. The touchscreen machine has special features for handicapped voters, but it can be used by non-handicapped voters too.

After Seymour and Clapper finished voting, the scanner’s count was loaded onto a computer thumbdrive which was removed and inserted into a computer with no internet connection.

The software program in the computer then began adding up the votes cast and produced a printed version of the results. With that in hand, Seymour and Clapper were ready to finish the test and verify that the votes counted by computer matched the votes cast on the paper ballots.

In recent weeks, Seymour and Clapper have trained about 400 election poll staff members who will greet voters today and instruct them on how to cast ballots and feed them into the scanner.

“It’s gone well,” Clapper said. “I don’t think there was anyone who said they were going to quit because they didn’t want to learn the new system.”

The voting systems were also introduced to the public through open houses held in September at eight libraries in Blair County.

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