Thanks to a bill that has cleared the legislature, counties are no longer required to purchase new voting machines, thus saving property taxpayers thousands of dollars while still maintaining the integrity of the election process.
The state Senate passed a measure Thursday that makes the purchase of Optical Scan voting machines permissive rather than mandatory. The state House had passed the measure earlier and the bill now goes to the governor.
Had the legislature not acted in this session, counties would have been forced to purchase new voting machines in a move that many considered "an unfunded mandate." If Governor Haslam signs the latest legislation, individual county election commissions will have the option of going to
the new machines or staying with the equipment currently in use.
"This was a compromise to the original legislation adopted a few years ago and one that many election administrators and election commission members throughout the state applaud," said Dennis Stanley, DeKalb County's Administrator of Elections.
Under the original act passed in 2006, each county in Tennessee would have been required to use the precinct-based Optical Scan voting system beginning with the 2012 November election. A bill was introduced this year that would implement the plan only if the legislature included a specific
recurring appropriation in the General Appropriations Act for the 2011-2012 fiscal year to cover all the increased costs to the individual counties. That bill was amended to allow counties the option to go to the different voting system and the state would pay for the machines. However,
counties will bear the burden of recurring expenses with the new system. Optical scan voting machines utilize both a paper and electronic system in which voters mark a paper ballot which is then scanned (or read) by an electronic machine. Once the vote is recorded, the paper ballot is
automatically dropped into a sealed container. DeKalb County currently uses what is known as a DRE voting system, an electronic machine that records a vote without the use of paper ballots.
"The voting machines we have now were first used in late 2006 and are working as advertised," said Walteen Parker, local election commission chairman. "At this point, there is no need to go to a different system that, in the view of many, actually opens the door to fraud and obviously
will result in increased expenditures."
Many proponents have argued the optical scan voting system assures a person's vote is counted correctly by providing a paper trail and voters receive a paper receipt upon completing the voting process. But Stanley said that is not totally true. "In reality, there is no way a voter can verify how his or her ballot is counted once it is scanned into the machine. And certainly, there is no
paper receipt given the voter, which would open the door to vote-buying," he said. "Proponents of the optical scan machines have been misinformed on their use and the use of the current system we have in place here."
Stanley said if the bill had become mandatory, it would have cost the local property taxpayers an estimated $60,000 more during the 2012 calendar year. "Even with the state purchasing the machines, the increased costs of printing the ballots, purchasing different voting booths and transporting the larger machines to and from the voting precincts would have been the
county's responsibility," he said.
"To give you an example of the increased expenditures, the database for the recent August DeKalb County General and State Republican and Democratic primaries totaled $2,000. If we had to print paper ballots for each of those elections, all held on the same day, the cost would have
been between $15,000 and $18,000. As long as the current machines provide an accurate picture of the voters' wishes, I see no need to spend thousands of dollars to change voting systems," he added.
Stanley and Parker took occasion to thank both Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver and State Senator Mae Beavers for their support of the compromise legislation. "They have been responsive to the needs of both the voter and the taxpayer," Parker said. "Their understanding of election issues has been a real plus and we appreciate help with this legislation."