County clerk plans to test new system in April in Carthage

By Susan Redden

Globe Staff Writer

Some Jasper County voters may have impaled their last punch card and punched out their last chad.

Though there's some disagreement about paying for a replacement, it appears that punch-card ballots are on their way out in county precincts.

In fact, some Carthage voters may have used their last punch-card ballots in the November election.

Ron Mosbaugh, Jasper County clerk, said he hopes to test new optical-scan voting equipment in Carthage precincts in the April election.

Mosbaugh and Chuck Surface, presiding county commissioner, agree that the county should take advantage of a federally funded offer to buy out the county's punch-card system and replace it with vote-scanning equipment.

If that happens, the county will join others shifting from punch cards. The Missouri secretary of state's Web site reports that 37 counties among the state's 116 election authorities still have punch cards.

Mosbaugh says that number is closer to 30. State information says punch cards are in use in McDonald County, but they were phased out in favor of vote-scanning equipment two years ago.

The state also lists Lawrence County as using punch cards, though officials there said optical-scan equipment was used in the November election.

Punch-card ballots still are in use in some Kansas counties, but Cherokee, Crawford and Labette counties use scanning equipment. All counties in Oklahoma use the same type of scanning system, according to the Ottawa County Election Board.

Though he finds no problems with punch cards, Mosbaugh said he believes Jasper County must phase out the system.

"If hardly anyone is using it, I think there's a chance it might not be certified in the future," he said. "And, as fewer counties use it, it makes ballots and punch cards more and more expensive."

The county's costs for the ballots, punch cards and vote-tabulation program totaled nearly $46,000 in November, Mosbaugh said.

He said the county also cannot ignore the offer of more than $200,000 to buy a new system, under a punch-card buyout program that is part of the federal Help America Vote Act.

"Whatever money counties don't use, the state will send back to the feds," Mosbaugh said. "I think it would be too much of a gamble not to take it."

Mosbaugh's proposed budget for the county elections office next year seeks an additional $31,313, which he says would be added to $210,686 from the federal program to buy new election equipment.

"Our costs would be about $252,000, and I'd spend $10,000 from the elections services account," he said.

The County Commission has not yet approved the clerk's budget.

Surface said he agrees that the county should phase out its punch-card system and should utilize the buyout money available from the federal government. But, he said he hopes he can find a way for federal money to cover all the county's costs.

Mosbaugh said he is proposing to buy 48 optical scanners - 45 to be used in voting precincts, one each for the clerk's offices in Carthage and Joplin, and a spare in case of a breakdown.

The proposal would require the county to reduce its number of polling places, from the current 64, "but I don't think we have any choice," Mosbaugh said.

The clerk said he hopes to test the system in April by using five of the scanners at precincts in Carthage.

"It will give people a chance to use it, and give us a chance to train on it with election judges," he said. "I think people will like it once they get used to it."

With the system, voters mark a paper ballot and feed it into an optical scanner. The ballot is tabulated and stored in the locked ballot box.

Mosbaugh said that in the event of possible problems, the system has safeguards for the voters.

"If they over-vote (vote for two people for the same office), the scanner will kick it back and tell them why," he said. "Election results will be a lot faster, because the votes are tabulated in each machine, at the precinct."

The federal law also requires specialized equipment for handicapped voters, but county clerks are hopeful that those costs also will be covered by federal money.

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