June 27, 2012 By Brian Heaton
Electronic registration technology has enabled Doña Ana County, N.M. to eliminate voting precincts and make it easier for residents to cast their ballots.
The county moved to a system of 39 polling places where citizens can go vote, regardless of where they live in the area. Previously residents could only vote at a pre-assigned location. The change was made possible by a big change: shifting from paper-based, manual voter registration to each site having multiple computer stations that help voters check-in.
Doña Ana County Clerk Lynn Ellins said Colorado’s move to a similar voting center strategy spurred the county’s interest in the method. He revealed that the upgrade has provided a variety of benefits for the county. By reducing the polling sites from 120 to 39, significantly fewer poll workers were needed and the county saved approximately $135,000 in operating costs.
The technology also sped-up the voting experience for citizens during the June 5 primary election.
“We were signing in four or five people at a time instead of one person at a time,” Ellins said. “It got people through in less than two minutes from the time they came in, signed the signature pad, got their ballot and went to the voting booth.”
Doña Ana County’s move also saved the state some money. Ellins said that by moving to an electronic registration system, New Mexico is avoiding the costs associated with printing paper ballots. In addition, the flexibility of allowing residents to vote in any of the 39 polling places allowed the county to cut down on provisional ballots, which added to the county’s savings. Provisional ballots were issued in the past because people went to the wrong precinct to vote.
The technology was provided by Automated Election Services, a local vendor located in Rio Rancho, N.M. The New Mexico Secretary of State office paid for the equipment and its installation. Doña Ana County is operating the system.
Getting the computers and other associated equipment up and online took about a week. Ellins said the county’s key task was making sure each of the 39 sites was hardwired for Internet connectivity. Out of the 39, three locations weren’t able to be hardwired, so wireless aircards were used in those three places.
Ellins deemed the first use of the technology and the new registration system a success. Voters have praised the new voting system, he said. But Ellins admitted that there were some minor bumps behind the scenes.
During the primary election, three of the polling sites went down, resulting in 30 minutes to two hours of downtime. Backup systems were brought up fairly quickly and delays were minimal, however. Even though hiccups in the public view were minor, Ellins said the county must improve the training that poll workers get on the new system heading into the November general election.
“At the end of the night, some of the poll workers didn’t quite understand how to close the polls with the new equipment,” Ellins recalled. “This was after 7 p.m., after the voters were gone. These were issues we’ll have to work on, but they are very resolvable.”
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