New voting system gets results on Primary Day


Harford County's new optical scanner voting system held up under its first major test in last week's primaries, election officials and voters said.

At each of the 54 precincts, voters chose their candidates by completing a broken arrow with a marking pen on a ballot. Each completed ballot was inserted into a scanner -- officially called an Optech III-P Eagle -- and tallied instantly.

After polls closed at 8 p.m. Tuesday, precinct leaders performed an immediate electronic audit of votes cast at their precinct. Then they took cassettes and printed tapes, plus the actual ballots locked in transfer cases, to the Board of Supervisors of Elections office in Bel Air.

By 9:35 p.m., election supervisors had the unofficial but complete results.

"We were the third-fastest county -- behind Frederick and Kent counties -- to report our results to state election officials after the polls closed," said Rita A. Dather, Harford's administrator for the Board of Supervisors of Elections.

She said that about six or eight years ago, Harford was the last jurisdiction in the state to report election results after a card reader in the old punch-card system broke down. She and her staff didn't finish counting the ballots until about 3 a.m.

The results will be verified and submitted to state election officials after absentee ballots are counted and audits of each precinct are completed.

Despite the excellent grades the optical scanner system received in its first major test, the old-fashioned telephone worked faster for campaign workers at County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann's headquarters on Main Street in Bel Air.

As 54 precinct leaders created a half-hour traffic jam on Main and Office streets while waiting briefly to deliver ballots and cassette tapes to the election office, Mrs. Rehrmann's campaign workers called her campaign headquarters with results of selected races from each precinct.

By 9 p.m., the Rehrmann workers knew, unofficially, who had won the five races they had targeted -- governor, the 2nd Congressional District, county executive, County Council president and sheriff.

Meanwhile, county sheriff's deputies were directing cars into two lanes on Office Street as harried election officials --ed in and out of the board's headquarters, accepting the precinct results and lugging the ballot transfer cases inside where the cassette tapes were quickly loaded into computers to produce printouts of the results.

"With a few minor revisions, we can be even faster getting out our final numbers in November's general election," Ms. Dather said.

She said balloting problems at the polls were minimal.

"You're always going to have a few ballots jam in the scanner," she said. "At least we had no power outages."

In all, 37,210 Harford voters, or 42.8 percent of those registered, cast ballots Tuesday, compared with 26,089 voters, or 35.47 percent, in the 1990 primary election.

Some 43.8 percent of the registered Democrats and 41.5 percent of the registered Republicans voted Tuesday. In the 1990 primary, Democrats had a 43.74 percent turnout, but only 22.07 percent of the registered Republicans voted.

"I really felt good about the turnout," Mrs. Rehrmann said of Tuesday's election. "It's a good sign that there's strong interest among the voters."

After poll workers overcame a bit of early-morning apprehension about the new system, everything ran smoothly, Ms. Dather said. Poll workers and voters thought so, too.

"It's quicker, neat and a novelty to them," said Precinct 4-01 Republican leader Wes Bones. "Only a few ballots were rejected."

That usually happens when someone "over-votes" by picking too many candidates for the same office, Mr. Bones said.

Elderly voters, in particular, seemed to like the new system , said Ruth Ann Poole, a precinct leader at Jarrettsville Elementary School.

Charlene Haupt, the precinct leader at C. Milton Wright High School, said the new system was easier than the old punch-out method.

F: "You can get in a vote and get out quickly," she said.

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