Manatee County buys new, high-tech voting equipment

skennedy@bradenton.comMay 9, 2013 

MANATEE -- New, high-tech voting equipment will be used for the first time this summer during a June 18 special election, a county official said Wednesday.

Manatee Supervisor of Elections Michael Bennett said he bought the "ballot-on-demand" system for about $13,000, and plans to use it for the first time during early voting before the special election.

"It gives us a great chance to find out what can go wrong, and what can't," said Bennett.

He said the system will eventually permit multiple early voting sites in the county for the first time. Last year, long lines formed at the county's sole early voting site before the November general election.

"We'll do early voting here to test it," said Bennett, pointing to parts of the system, such as an Electronic Voter Identification machine and new ballot-on-demand printers.

The new system automatically provides the right ballot for each voter, regardless of precinct or site, Bennett said.

Under the current system, elections workers hand-pull the correct ballot based on the person's residence, he said. Bennett does not plan to use the new system on Election Day, he said. Manual voting will be done that day, he said.

"When you go to the November election in 2014, we will have three to six early voting sites," said Bennett.

Sarasota County used ballot-on-demand equipment during last year's general election, and was able to accommodate tens of thousands

more voters than did Manatee County, partly because it enabled more early voting sites. During eight days of early voting last fall, Sarasota County comfortably handled 55,481 voters at six sites, officials said.

Manatee County handled 16,345 voters -- less than comfortably -- as some people fainted in the heat while waiting hours to vote at the supervisor's office, 600 301 Blvd. W, Suite 108, Bradenton.

Sarasota County installed its ballot-on-demand equipment in 2007, said Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent.

"It's a big improvement over what we had before," Dent said. "It would make it quicker, and it's fool-proof because the equipment doesn't lie, the poll worker can't give them the wrong ballot."

The system is also cheaper: Dent said she can order fewer paper ballots because all ballot styles are already in a database, and can be printed out as needed, she said.

"You don't have to have big piles sitting there preprinted," she said

Because more people today choose to vote early or by absentee ballot, Manatee County is consolidating polling sites, which will also mean less expense, Bennett said.

His office has already combined 14 precincts into seven, so Bennett urged people to check their polling site before setting out to vote.

Bennett is also investigating the possibility of eventually operating 12 highly visible "Super Precincts" that would be open throughout the early voting period and on Election Day.

People driving by, seeing no line, might stop and vote at such a place, he said.

"We're hoping that making voting more convenient will increase the percentage of people that vote," he said.

"Texting and e-mail, it's all about convenience," said Bennett. "People expect immediate response."

The deadline to register to vote in the special election is Monday, May 20.

Voters will be asked to decide whether the county's sales tax should be raised a half-cent in order to pay for indigent health care.

In a separate vote, votes will decided whether to allow property tax abatements for large businesses that expand or move into Manatee County.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.

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