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Sonoma County previews high-tech voting systems

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Sonoma County voters will likely see a new ballot format and new equipment at the polls beginning next year, including computer touch-screens, officials said Thursday during a preview of the latest technology for implementing democracy’s bedrock process.

Three manufacturers of high-tech voting systems displayed their equipment for a hands-on demonstration open to public officials and politically engaged citizens at the Santa Rosa Veteran’s Memorial Building.

“I’m checking it out,” Sonoma County Administrator Sheryl Bratton said. “It’s time to invest in the new technology and a reliable system.”

County elections officials say the current system, called Mark-A-Vote, is still “functional and accurate” but 35 years old, uses parts no longer made and runs on software no longer supported.

County Clerk Bill Rousseau, whose term expires this year, said he had been determined to modernize county elections since he took office in 2012.

A new system could cost about $6 million, he said, less if the county opts for a multiyear lease that allows it to scale back the number of polling places in the future.

Rousseau said the county is considering a move to an all-mail election, possibly in 2022, with ballots going out to all voters with just 30 “vote centers” around the county.

Five counties are using such a system this year, and Rousseau said “we’re going to learn from them.”

There will be about 200 polling places for the June 5 primary election and vote-by-mail ballots will be sent out starting May 7.

Meanwhile, the county has already set aside $1.9 million for a new voting system and aims to buy one this year and use it for the first time in 2019 local elections, he said.

The new system will be a major upgrade but still rely on paper ballots that voters personally insert into a ballot box or submit by mail if they are among the 75 percent of county voters who vote by what used to be called absentee ballots.

At polling places, voters will have the option of a paper ballot generated by a computer printer or a touch-screen that will enable them to review all their choices before pressing the “print” button.

“Why fix anything that isn’t broken?” said David Moreno, director of product strategy for Dominion Voting Systems, one of three vendors at the demonstration.

“This is where the industry is going,” he said. “Very simple, very straightforward.”

The other two vendors at the demonstration were Hart InterCivic and Election Systems & Software.

The computers at the polls will not retain voting data, nor will they be connected to the internet, officials said. All ballots will be run through scanners at the county elections office, as they are now.

“That was comforting,” said Stephanie Williams, Santa Rosa deputy city clerk, relieved to know the computers would presumably not be vulnerable to hacking. “We certainly want to protect the privacy of the voters.”

Diane Fridley, Lake County registrar of voters, said she was “just looking now — all this is pretty new.”

Lake County is “considering a replacement” of the Mark-A-Vote system, the same as Sonoma County’s, that it has used since 1983, she said.

Rousseau said the new system will slightly speed up the vote tally on election night, but there will likely remain delays in the final count due to the number of mail-in ballots brought to the polls that day, each requiring signature verification.

The big difference, he said, will be the ability to issue updates as the post-election day count continues, which the county has not done in the past, leaving close contests in limbo.