PROVO — The way Utah County Commissioner Steve White sees it, there are two options on the electronic election ballot:

• Utah allows early voting, or

• Utah County raises taxes.

White prefers the first option, but it's not up to him.

Early voting is one of the issues the state Legislature is expected to address during the 2006 general session, which begins Jan. 16. Utah lawmakers will be considering a change to the state election code that would allow voters to cast their ballots up to two weeks before Election Day.

They're also expected to explore the option of permitting county clerks to consolidate voting precincts into central locations such as shopping malls.

It's an option that White estimates could save Utah County — and potentially taxpayers — $160,000 a year. The establishment of satellite voting locations would mean fewer precincts would need to be created each year, he said, and a two-week voting window would curb the crowds on Election Day.

And all of that would prevent Utah County from spending about $320,000 every two years to purchase enough electronic voting machines to keep up with the county's growth, White said.

"(A tax increase) is a concern unless the state law is changed to allow early voting two weeks before the election and to have precincts larger than 1,000 voters," he said. "If we keep everything the way it is, we're going to have to add 100 machines every two years."

The change to electronic voting machines in 2006 stems from the federal Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress in 2002 as a reaction to the voting problems in Florida during the 2000 presidential election. HAVA requires counties to install voting procedures that are accessible to all disabled voters and allow people to correct any mistakes they make while filling out the ballot.

The state contracted with Ohio-based Diebold to purchase 7,500 electronic voting machines using nearly $28 million in federal money, said Michael Cragun, state elections director. About $3.5 million of that cost covers an extended warranty through 2015 on the full-color, touch-screen machines.

Utah County is slated to receive 1,074 electronic voting machines. And although the state covered the cost of those machines with its federal allotment, finding funding for the additional equipment that may be needed in the future is up to the counties.

"That could lead to a tax increase (in Utah County) down the road," White said.

The Diebold voting machines cost about $3,200 each, meaning it would cost $320,000 to purchase the 100 additional machines White estimates Utah County will need for county elections every other year.

If the Legislature OKs early voting and the use of satellite polling stations, White said county election officials could staff kiosks at University Mall, Provo Towne Centre or even at Wal-Mart stores throughout the county where people could vote in the two weeks leading up to Election Day.

"If we get early voting in regional centers, we could maybe have one-third of the people (voting early)," he said. "Then on Election Day when everyone else votes, we'd need one-third fewer machines to keep the lines at a reasonable level."

Utah County's 2006 budget approved by commissioners Dec. 6 was balanced without including costs associated with potential changes to the election code. If the Legislature approves early voting, Utah County Clerk/Auditor Kim Jackson said his office likely will make a midyear request for additional funding from the county commission.

As it is, the county has budgeted $891,000 for elections in 2006 — a $377,000 increase from 2004, when the most recent county-office elections where held.

"With the new electronic voting equipment, there are some one-time costs associated with that," Jackson said.

About $260,000 of the county's election budget for 2006 will be used to cover training and pay for election judges, as well as for poll managers and poll assistants who will be added at precincts this year. The county spent about half that amount on training in 2004.

"We want to give the judges plenty of exposure with the equipment to make sure they understand how it works," Jackson said.

Poll managers will watch over the machines and make sure they're operating correctly, Jackson said. The poll assistants essentially will be hand-holders to answer voter questions and demonstrate how to use the new equipment.

"We're obviously nervous about going into an election year with new equipment, having never used it before," Jackson said. "Sometimes it's a challenge to determine exactly what your costs are going to be ahead of time before you use the equipment. We're making a valiant effort with the budget to make it happen as efficiently and cost-effective as we can."

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