- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 4, 2002

The winner of the District's Sept. 10 Democratic mayoral primary is not likely to be known for 10 days after the last vote is cast.
That's because the District's 189 new voting machines, called Optech Eagle, cannot read handwritten ballots such as those that will be cast for Mayor Anthony A. Williams and the Rev. Willie F. Wilson, who are running write-in campaigns. Those ballots will have to be tallied by members of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics.
"It may take a week to 10 days, because in the District we do look to determine voter intent," said Bill O'Field, spokesman for the elections board.
Mr. Williams and Mr. Wilson are considered the leading candidates, and their write-in votes are expected to number in the thousands and make up the majority of the ballots.
Misspellings will add to the difficulty in determining voter intent, Mr. O'Field said, as will transposed write-in names such as "Willie Williams" or "Tony Wilson." Names written in cursive could also prove problematic.
"Since both of their last names start with 'Wil,' we are trying to determine what to do if the rest of the name is illegible," Mr. O'Field said.
He urged voters to print the names as clearly as possible on their ballots, adding that the business titles of the two candidates "Reverend" and "Mayor" could be used to help determine voter intent.
The new voting machines will separate the write-in ballots from the standard ballots, which will be counted automatically and reported through modems to the elections board.
The Optech Eagle machines have been in stock and ready for use in the District's 141 precincts for about two years. The elections board has given at least one teaching session a week for 18 months to acclimate voters, Mr. O'Field said.
"We have done 114 teaching sessions for voters and will complete six this week," he said.
Mr. O'Field said his office has done everything it can to educate the voters, despite reports that voters in some wards don't know about the new machines or the teaching sessions.
"There is an issue of voter responsibility to come out and be educated," he said. "We will probably continue to conduct the teaching sessions up to the general election, but voters have to show up."
About 1,300 volunteer poll workers, most of whom will be paid $100 for Election Day duties, have undergone training. They will instruct voters at the polls on how to mark the ballots and how to insert them into the Optech Eagle.
Veteran workers believe the Optech Eagle will make their jobs easier. Workers will tell voters how to pencil in a connection between an arrowhead and tailfeathers beside the name of the candidate of the voter's choice.
For write-ins, there is a blank space next to a disconnected arrowhead and tailfeathers. Voters are to write or print the names of their candidate choices in those space and connect the arrows.
"But we will count the write-in names as votes even if the arrow is not connected," Mr. O'Field said.
Inside the booth, voters will put their ballots inside a paper cover, hiding their votes. Then, the voter goes to Optech Eagle, removes the ballot and inserts it into a slot.
If the ballot is marked incorrectly for instance, if two candidates have been selected for one office Optech Eagle will reject the ballot and sound a warning. With workers' assistance, voters may correct the problem or vote on a new ballot.
The ballots fall into a box locked in the bottom of Optech Eagle. After polls close at 8 p.m., precinct captains and workers remove the boxes and transport them to the central election office.
The scanning machines also print vote totals and voting faults on a receipt-style roll of paper, summarizing the results.
Optical scanners such as Optech Eagle have been on the job for as long as 18 years in other governments around the nation, including Alexandria.
"They are extremely accurate," said Alexandria Registrar Tom Parkins, who began working with optical scanners in 1986 in Des Moines, Iowa.
The Alexandria scanners are called AccuVote. Mr. Parkins praised them for quick and accurate counting and ease of transportation.
The D.C. elections board paid $950,000 for 160 machines. One machine will be placed in each of the 141 precincts, leaving 19 in reserve.
The elections board has stopped its intake of poll volunteers at 1,300, with 50 replacement workers in place to fill in at polling stations across the city.

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