ATLANTA - The state of Georgia has signed off on the largest voting-equipment contract in U.S. history, a major step toward installing the nation's first statewide electronic balloting system by November's elections.
For $54 million, Diebold Election Systems will provide more than 19,000 high-tech voting machines, featuring touch screens, to Georgia's 2,853 precincts. Four hundred optical-scan machines will be used to count absentee ballots.
The state could get its money back from the federal government if Congress approves pending legislation providing funds to the states for voting-reform projects.
The General Assembly approved the massive investment during the recently concluded legislative session, after Secretary of State Cathy Cox argued that the storm of controversy that hit Florida after the 2000 presidential election should serve as a "wake-up call" for Georgia and other states.
Uncertainty over the narrow margin separating Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, complicated by the hodgepodge of voting systems in use in Florida, delayed the results for more than a month and threw the election to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Research by Ms. Cox's office later revealed that 94,000 ballots in Georgia showed no choice for president, more than in Florida and nearly double the national average.
"We took the events of the 2000 presidential election as a warning, but also as a catalyst for change," Ms. Cox said Friday during a news conference. "The state of Georgia has become a national leader in election reform."
Diebold Election Systems is a subsidiary of Diebold Inc., an Ohio-based manufacturer of automated-teller machines. It was among nine vendors that competed for the lucrative contract.
All provided sample machines that were tested during municipal elections in 13 cities across the state last November.
Ms. Cox said a 12-member evaluation committee recommended Diebold based on such factors as accuracy, ease of use, accessibility and ability to provide training and technical support.
In addition to the contract, the state also has committed nearly $4.5 million for voter-education efforts.
Ms. Cox said the contract calls for every precinct to have at least one voting machine with audio equipment.
"We wanted to make sure the visually impaired could vote exactly like every other voter, by themselves, secretly and accurately," said Wally O'Dell, Diebold's chief executive officer.
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