Deseret Morning News graphic

Before asking voters to cast legitimate ballots on new voting machines for legislators, congressmen and president, Utah election officials will test the machines in a sparring match between some presidential heavyweights.

Participants in the test run of the new electronic voting machines being considered by the state could cast votes in a race between, for example, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The machine test is scheduled for March 30 at South Towne Center between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.

The voters in the test, which is open to anyone of voting age, will be asked to use the four machines the state is considering for purchase by the end of this year and then to evaluate each machine, Elections Director Michael Cragun said. The state is hoping at least 200 people will participate.

Before selecting one of the machines to purchase, the state is also planning at least one more public hearing. Officials would like to have the machines installed in at least some areas before this year's municipal elections, Cragun said.

Replacing punch-card ballot systems with electronic machines is one of the core requirements of the Help America Vote Act, which was passed by Congress following the 2000 election debacle in Florida. The deadline for compliance is Jan. 1, 2006, although Utah has intentionally waited until the last minute so officials could evaluate the performance of various machines in other states.

Although the federal government has kicked in more than $20 million to help the state cover the costs of the new machines, Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert said that still leaves the state with an approximately $7 million shortfall. Although still an estimate, that number was pushed up by more than $3 million by a bill passed by the Legislature this year that requires the machines to produce a paper ballot.

While the state will try to cover some of that shortfall, Herbert said counties are very worried that they will end up footing the bill. Already, they are looking at increased costs to transport, store and program the machines.

"Counties are worried that the state will stick them with that bill," Herbert said during a meeting with the Deseret Morning News editorial board Wednesday. "That could be a real budget buster for some of them."

Despite the costs, the state will not reject all four machines, two of which are made by Diebold and two by Election Systems & Software. Herbert said that with a pending deadline and threats from the U.S. Justice Department to pursue noncompliance through the courts, it is not feasible to push back the installation.

"From a practical standpoint, it's becoming more difficult" to postpone the installation of the machines in an attempt to cut costs or consider different machines, Herbert said. "I don't know how we can comply with the HAVA law if we don't use these machines."