While Floridians scrutinized chads last fall, election officials in Riverside County, Calif., celebrated the success of their first full-scale experience with electronic voting. Since then, colleagues across the United States have kept the countys employees busy with questions about their new touch-screen machines.

"Weve been overwhelmed with calls from other jurisdictions," said Mischelle Townsend, Riverside Countys registrar of voters. "Ive sent packets all over the country to people who are looking to replace their punch-card systems."

Riverside is not the first U.S. county to turn to electronic voting. According to a recent report by the California Institute of Technology/Massachusetts Institute of Technology Voting Project, 9 percent of U.S. counties, covering nearly 11 percent of the population, used direct recording electronic (DRE) systems to vote in 2000. But Riverside is one of the first counties to implement a DRE with a touch-screen interface in all of its precincts.

Officials in Riverside County are convinced their new system is counting every vote and doing it with enviable speed. In a special election for a state Assembly seat in February, Riverside tallied the results for all of its 111 precincts in one hour and 17 minutes.

Improving the Process

When Riverside County officials first started thinking about electronic voting, the big incentive was saving money.

The county spent more than $1 million printing ballots for Californias gubernatorial primary in 1998. It printed more ballots than usual to be ready for a larger than usual number of voters, because the state had just opened primary elections to voters who were unaffiliated with a political party.

Unfortunately, many people chose to stay home. "When it was over, I had 14 pallets of costly ballots I had to destroy," Townsend said.

Later, a city council race that was decided by a single vote spurred further interest in replacing Riversides 20-year-old balloting system with something more likely to capture the choice of every last voter.

With the old mark-sense system, a voter selected candidates by marking boxes with a special pen. A high-speed optical scanning system then read and tallied the votes.

Unfortunately, voters sometimes used their own pens instead of the ones provided. The scanning system couldnt read those marks and their votes were discarded, Townsend said. Also, the system used multiple ballot cards printed on both sides. When the ballot was long -- as it often is in California -- some voters inadvertently skipped contests.

With all this in mind, the county formed a task force to explore alternatives. In the fall of 1999, the group asked the County Board of Supervisors for permission to release a request for proposals for a touch-screen voting system. "Touch screen appeared to be the system that was certified by both federal and state governments in California that could deliver the criteria we were looking at -- improved accuracy, security and ease of use by the voters and poll workers," Townsend said.

The RFP drew three proposals from vendors whose touch-screen systems were certified at the time for use in California. The task force interviewed the candidates, checked references and performed an in-depth analysis of each companys financial condition.

With its homework done, Riverside County chose the AVC Edge touch-screen DRE system from Sequoia Pacific Voting Equipment of Jamestown, N.Y. Riverside piloted the system in four municipal elections in 1999 and conducted voter surveys, which indicated that 99 percent of voters approved of the new voting machines, Townsend said.

In March 2000, Riverside County signed a $14 million contract with Sequoia Pacific for 4,250 units and started getting ready for the presidential election.

Pre-Game Warm-Up

To prepare citizens for electronic voting, Riverside County began an education campaign that included public presentations, a video on local cable stations and an online tutorial

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer