In 2006, the Shelby County Election Commission spent $4 million on touch-screen voting machines for the county's 275 precincts. Now a new state law threatens to make those machines obsolete.
According to the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act, which went into effect on January 1st, all Tennessee counties must purchase optical scanner voting systems. The new system requires voters to fill in bubbles on a paper ballot, much like students do on ACT or SAT forms.
"The ballots would be scanned at the precinct, and the results would be fed into a central tabulating area," said Myra Styles, chairperson of the Shelby County Election Commission. "There will still be a lot of computer involvement, so it doesn't do away with the problems that people have seen in computer-based systems."
Critics of touch-screen voting machines fear software can be pre-programmed to support one party or another, regardless of a person's vote. The state's Voter Confidence Act was meant to create a paper trail so votes can be audited or recounted if necessary.
But Shelby County Commission secretary Richard Holden has doubts that the new system will be any more reliable.
"I'd hate to see us spend $5 to $6 million to replace machines just to add paper to the process," Holden said. "If you have a piece of paper that someone can count, how many times do they have to count it until everyone agrees that it's perfect?"
State Coordinator of Elections Brook Thompson said the federal Help America Vote Act provides some funding to help counties pay for new machines. But Holden is more concerned with the long-term cost of operating the new equipment.
"The paper machines are more expensive on an ongoing basis because you have to buy paper from a vendor. That was one of the reasons we wanted to get away from that," Holden said. "You have to buy more paper than you need to make sure you [have] enough ballots for the voters."
And not all ballots are created equal. Voters in Shelby County are given different ballots based on what district they live in.
"In early voting, where people can vote anywhere in the county, you're talking about usually 100 different ballot styles and layouts," Styles said. "The only way to handle that is to have a poll worker print out the ballot as each person comes to vote. That would require very expensive printing equipment, and it would take a long time for each voter."
Though the law went into effect at the beginning of the year, there are no elections scheduled for Shelby County in 2009.
Styles hopes Shelby County can be exempted from the new law, but that would require the legislature to change the act's language, because there are currently no allowances for exemptions.