Utah will spend more than $20 million in federal funds over the next year buying thousands of new electronic voting machines.

But state and county officials won't be able to buy what many Utahns want: an electronic machine that provides a paper printout or other "hard copy" of their ballot to prove their vote was counted correctly.

"None of the major vendors" offer electronic machines that can print out hard-copy ballots, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen told a newly formed state committee that will select exactly what kind of voting machines the state and counties will purchase.

Swensen, who sits on the committee, said, "I'm already getting letters and e-mails" asking that the new voting system — demanded and funded by Congress after the 2000 voting fiasco in Florida — have hard-copy proof of each voter's ballot.

Florida officials were criticized in last Tuesday's presidential primary for not having electronic machines with printouts. Maybe in a year or two, some manufacturer will have that capability, said Swensen, but not now when Utah officials are picking which machines to buy.

Officially called the Voting Equipment Selection Committee, the Utah group will pick one vendor by September to supply more than 3,000 machines. By federal law, the new machines must be in place and working by the 2006 elections. But the new machines will be tested in a few "pilot precincts" in this November's general election, said Amy Naccarato, state elections officer.

Meeting the 2006 deadline probably won't be a problem. The state Lieutenant Governor's Office and county clerks (who actually conduct elections) have been working on the problem for more than a year.

But what kind of system to buy, and how many machines the state can get for its $20.5 million, is still very much up in the air.

Under a state elections plan already adopted by a separate planning committee, Swensen said Salt Lake County, with 40 percent of the state's population, will have 1,067 fewer electronic voting machines than it currently has computer punch card ballot machines. And that could mean long lines of unhappy voters on Election Day 2006.

Salt Lake and other Wasatch Front counties may end up buying, on their own, more electronic machines.

"We may want to pay for the machines outright, we may want to lease them," said state Chief Information Officer Val Oveson, who has been put in charge of the selection committee by Lt. Gov. Gayle McKeachnie.

The political implications of the decision could be great. Some public service careers could be greatly harmed, maybe even ended, if come 2006 there are huge lines on Election Day, miscounted votes, disputed elections or other voter-confidence-shaking mishaps.

Luckily, several committee members said Thursday, for once it's nice that Utah is at the end of the national pack on something.

Utah is one of only a handful of states that still use computer punch-card ballots — complete with hanging chads — in major elections. And so much can be learned from the experiences of other states, some of whom are on their second generation of electronic voting machines, several committee members said.

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But Utah is also a high-tax, revenue-poor state. And as committee member Ray Palmer put it: "This is it. With the cost of these machines and our (limited federal) funding, when will we see this kind of money again" for voting machines?

In other words, there won't be any state or county money to purchase 3,000 or more machines if the ones this committee buys turn out badly.

Even to purchase more machines than the federal government's $20.5 million will buy, the state and/or individual counties could be looking at bonding, said Oveson.


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com