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You've punched your last

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Voters of Ada County, you've punched your last card. The county, reportedly among the last in the country to use old-fashioned punch card voting machines, will be switching to newer technology now that the 2006 elections are over.

According to Chris Rich, chief deputy clerk for Ada County, the old-fashioned punch card system is so out of date, only one company--the one that invented them--is still around to service them if things go awry.

"It's like having a Betamax," Rich said. "It's a great product but nobody supports it."

It's not exactly a hanging chad problem--Idaho's old-fashioned punch cards have not so far created any such election-time brouhahas--but Rich said the machines are just too old. They did keep Brian Cronin up later than he intended on election night, however; the chairman of the Ada County Democratic Party got out of his PJ's and headed down to Ada County to sort out a brief confusion when the county's vote tallies started going backwards, something that happened after midnight when a new date rolled over on the the counting systems. The glitch was later resolved.

Marilyn Johnson at the Idaho Secretary of State's Office said that of Idaho's counties, 16 use a hand-counted paper ballot system, 13 use the punch-card system like Ada County's and 15 use optical-scan systems, which are similar to the standardized test technology wherein stressed-out students fill in ovals with No. 2 pencils.

That latter sytem provided some headaches for Bannock County this election season, when the clerk's office used the optical-scan machines for the first time and ran into trouble. The glitches required a manual recount of all of the ballots, and candidates there didn't get election results until 12:45 p.m. on Wednesday, November 8.

Still, it's the optical scan system that Rich and others at Ada County have their eye on. They're hoping to buy systems from one of two companies: Election Systems and Software, from Omaha, Nebraska, or Sequoia Voting Systems of Oakland, California. Those are among a short list of voting machine manufacturers certified by the Secretary of State's Office, said Johnson.

The mess in Bannock County may be one reason why Rich and others at Ada County hope to have the new optical-scan equipment in soon. They're hoping to put the systems through a dry run or two before the Boise mayor's election in November 2007, just one year away. That smaller election would be much easier to manage with new equipment than, say, the 2008 presidential election.

Costs estimates are few, but Rich said the county will receive some matching dollars from the federal government, as part of the federal Help America Vote Act.

"Any system of voting has its attendant challenges," Rich said.

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