Originally created 11/05/02

High-tech equipment might slow counting



Candidates in tight political races could be in for a long election night.

Although new, touch-screen voting equipment is expected to speed up vote counts, a new - possibly slower - system for reading absentee ballots has been implemented in Richmond County. That, coupled with the thousands of absentee ballots that had been filed in Augusta as of Monday night, means final election numbers could be stalled until early Wednesday.

As of 5 p.m. Monday, the elections office reported issuing more than 5,100 absentee ballots, which represents about 6 percent of the county's 81,500 registered voters. If turnout predictions of 55 percent to 60 percent prove true, absentee ballots would account for as much as 11 percent of Augusta's total vote.

It could be enough to make or break an election - particularly in races that are close, observers say.

"Normally speaking, absentee ballots always favor the Republican Party," said Ralph Walker, a professor emeritus of political science at Augusta State University and a local elections expert.

This year, though, elections officials report the number of absentee ballots spiked, in part because some older voters are voting absentee to avoid computerized voting machines.

"That might moderate that Republican edge a little bit," Dr. Walker said. "This is sort of an unknown factor this year, though, because we haven't had this before."

Turnout predictions also are higher this year than they were during the mayoral election four years ago, when 51 percent of registered voters cast ballots, 3,660 of which were cast absentee.

Although the touch-screen voting machines will be able to read and report thousands of votes almost instantly through computer technology, the absentee ballot scanners have the potential to be slower than the old technology.

Old counting machines could read a stack of 1,000 cards in one minute, but the new system - an optical scanner - requires ballots be fed into a scanning machine one by one, at a rate of about 20 cards a minute. Richmond County has four absentee ballot scanners, said Lynn Bailey, the executive director of the elections board.

In addition to the new scanner, every absentee ballot is enclosed in two sealed envelopes, both of which must be opened by hand. Also, 50-plus "dummy" ballots will have to be reproduced onto official absentee ballots tonight. Printing delays required that some out-of-town and military ballots be mailed before official ballots were complete.

"The absentee ballots will be last, I'm sure," Mrs. Bailey said, adding that she expects workers to have every other precinct tabulated by 11 p.m.

Other communities report seeing similarly high absentee ballot returns, including Athens and Savannah, both of which share the newly created 12th Congressional District with Augusta. Athens-Clarke County reports having mailed about 2,000 absentee ballot forms to its registered voters. Savannah elections officials said they had issued more than 4,100.

Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215 or heidi.williams@augustachronicle.com.