Klickitat County has contracted with a private firm to install digital scanning voting for use in the county's elections.
The deal is with Hart InterCivic, a privately held technology and services provider corporation based in Austin, Texas. Hart InterCivic now has deals with 21 counties in the state of Washington.
According to Klickitat County Auditor Brenda Sorensen, the deal will reduce election costs and offer ballots that are easier for voters to read and understand.
She added that the existing voting system in Klickitat County was not intended for entirely mail-in ballot voting.
"Each ballot had to be run through the scanner individually," Sorensen explained. "With the new system, batches of up to 100 ballots can be scanned at one time. Also, with the old system, we could not begin scanning until 7 a.m. on election day. With a digitized system, we can start scanning as the ballots are returned."
The new equipment will be in place for the Feb. 19 presidential primary election. Hart has delivered the voting equipment and is training county election employees.
"Klickitat County went to a vote by mail approach in May 2007, but the system used at that time was time-consuming and costly," Sorensen said. "Hart ballots are easy for the voters to read and understand, and the equipment works well and provides for fiscally-responsible and efficient election administration."
The Hart system is called Hart InterCivic Ballot Now. Ballot Now saves a digital image of each ballot scanned, and it allows the county to start scanning ballots before the day of the election.
Sorensen added that Hart InterCivic will also offer "a very easy to use disabled access voter interface."
The deal cost approximately $136,500, but most of the expense was covered by a HAVA ("Help America Vote Act") matching fund grant.
"Less than 10 percent of the total cost will be Klickitat County's cost," Sorensen said.
Another benefit of the deal Sorensen pointed to was that the new system will allow ballots to be printed within the Auditor's Office, which will cut printing costs substantially. Previously, the ballots had to be produced by a commercial printer.
Sorensen pointed out that there will still be a "paper trail" with the new setup.
"After the ballots are received, signatures verified, canvassed, and the election is certified -- the ballots are kept for 22 months following certification in locked containers in a locked room," she said. "Ballots will be kept just as in the past."
Sorensen said there were other safeguards as well.
"Prior to the election, a list of all active voters who were mailed a ballot is retained. A report is available indicating how many ballots have been received, how many are outstanding, how many of those received back are valid and will be counted; how many are missing signatures, have invalid signatures, were returned by the Postal Service, etc.," she explained.
Sorensen added that the changes did not mean the county's voting process was being placed in the hands of a private company.
"This is a private company that provides election software, just as our former election software company did," Sorensen said. "The right to vote is not being placed in private hands. They provide election software and equipment. Our staff operates it. The Auditor's Office continues to administer elections in accord with current law. It's just making it more efficient."
Phillip Braithwaite, senior vice president of Hart's Election Solutions Group, said he was glad to see Klickitat County join with other Washington counties in setting up the Hart system.
"Hart InterCivic is proud to provide election solutions to a significant percentage of the voting population in Washington state," said Braithwaite. "We are delighted to have Klickitat County as a Hart customer."
Sorensen noted that the Secretary of State offers a security audit of the new election computers, and Sorensen's Goldendale office will conduct a "logic and accuracy" test to check the new equipment before the primary election and the general election. She invited those who might be interested in the process to come and see how the new equipment operates.
The testing of the equipment will be on Feb. 5 at 10 a.m., in the Auditor's Office at the County Courthouse in Goldendale.
"Anyone who wants to come can come," Sorensen said.