Boone County to use e-poll books in November election

The county clerk said students will be key in helping to train workers.

A software program on laptops will replace pencil and paper sign-in sheets at precincts throughout Boone County for the November election.

On Thursday, Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren said voters in the midterm election will be able to scan their drivers licenses or sample ballot forms to check in at their polling place.

A computer program will extract information people would normally have to write down, such as their name and address, and store it in the computer as a record the person had voted.

Noren said the computer programs would help poll workers check in people more quickly, so they could devote time to people who need extra help.

"With a well-designed program, it could do the work for them," Noren said.

Noren said the new system, called an electronic poll book, would consist of a software program loaded onto a laptop. This is different from some electronic poll books where the program is loaded onto a special touch screen machine.

She also said student poll workers would play a key role in helping to train other older workers in how to set up and use the new technology. She said college students have a valuable familiarity with computers.

"They're so good, because I don't have to teach them how to set up a laptop," Noren said. "It's just intuitive for them."

Former student Bret Crawford was a poll worker in the November 2008 presidential elections. He said having more young workers would help with the transition to electronic poll books.

"I believe that it would, as long as they were able to communicate well," he said. "The electronic equipment is pretty easy to use."

Noren said the electronic poll books would be tested at 50 to 55 precincts in the August municipal elections and fully implemented by the November congressional elections.

She said buying the laptop computers for all the polling places could cost between $150,000 and $175,000. She said money would come from the county's election services fund, where the county has been saving up money from the state for the past five years.

There would be no extra cost in developing the software because the county's salaried Information Technology staff is doing the project, she said.

Noren started looking into electronic poll books after seeing them used in the 2008 election in Maryland. When the machines were introduced there in 2006, there were problems with computers failing to communicate with each other.

David Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said errors mostly result from incorrect setup. He said he anticipated them gaining popularity.

"My impression is that this is the wave of the future," Kimball said. "It's more efficient in checking people in and keeping track of who voted and who didn't."

Sean Flaherty, a researcher with election watchdog Verified Voting, said new technology might be hard for certain workers and voters to use, but he said Boone County would have backup plans, such as the paper sign-in books in case of glitches.

"There's a chance that they add a layer of complexity," he said. "But knowing the contingency plans Boone County has in place, they should be able to react to any problems."

He said in addition to make voter check-ins more efficient, the electronic poll books will also make it easier for poll workers to reconcile check-in numbers with the number of ballots voters cast.

The poll book software counts the number of voters who scan in, and that number has to match the electronically counted number of ballots in the ballot box.

"If it makes that easier, then it may be worth the added layer of complexity," he said.

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