Punched Out
Scott Gilbert

Punched Out

Houston, get ready. Every grandma who's been baffled by a VCR, every technophobe who's quailed at having to program a new remote control, every significant other who's ever refused to Read The Goddamn Manual and instead just yells for your help when the printer isn't working, all of them are going to have to learn how to operate a newfangled voting system next year.

And they're all going to be ahead of you in line.

Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman and Mayor Lee P. Brown introduced the e-Slate voting machines to media and assembled dignitaries August 6 at a festive gathering in the Houston Area Urban League offices. They also announced the beginning of the "HarrisVotes! Outreach and Education Campaign," a series of events designed to tell voters how to use the new machines. A series of events, no doubt, that will be attended by only the kind of people who won't have any problems learning the machines.

(Separate events designed to explain the tired grammar and capitalization of "e-Slate" and "HarrisVotes!" are not yet scheduled.)

Hart Intercivic of Austin won the $25 million contract this summer to provide about 8,500 of the new machines to Harris County, which will become the largest jurisdiction in the United States to use electronic voting.

"We're not moving to a new technology because Harris County had a problem, but because Beverly wanted to take a new step, if you will, in the right direction," Mayor Brown said to the rapt crowd.

The new machines are "tough screen," not "touch screen," according to a handout. They offer "a rugged, field-ready display that can't be poked or punctured." Michelle Shafer, director of corporate communications for Hart, said such manly attributes are necessary.

Touch-screen machines, she confided with a tone of sadness, have "recalibration issues." Meaning all that touching can sometimes throw them off, she says.

In place of touch screen, the new machines we'll all be using employ a dial to move the equivalent of a cursor up and down the screen. (It's either "A New Twist on Voting" or "The Wheels of Democracy Tak[ing] a New Turn," according to the publicity material.)

When you enter a polling place come Election Day next year, you will (after waiting for the system to be explained to everyone in front of you) be given a randomly generated four-digit code. An illustrated keypad appears on your screen, you spin the dial until it falls on the right number, you hit enter, you do it again until you've entered all four digits.

Then the ballot appears. (The sample ballot for HarrisVotes! features historical personages such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.) The dial moves you up and down the ballot. Unless the thing doesn't work, as was the case when This Reporter tried it. "It should be moving" was the technical explanation.

The glitch was fixed, and voting proceeded somewhat smoothly. The explanations aren't really clear on how to change your vote, instructions which were desperately needed when This Reporter mistakenly cast a vote for Jefferson Davis for Senate. But it's easy enough to guess what to do if you're computer literate.

And if you're not, don't worry. "Voters don't need to know anything about computers," Kaufman said. "This is really more of a voting appliance than a computer."

The devices do offer headphones for blind or illiterate voters; they promise speedier counts come Election Night; they've got 18-hour battery-powered backup in case of electricity outages; they've apparently got all the security measures that could ever be necessary.

Still, voting will be a completely different experience. An experience that might take some people a while to get used to.

"We're not pretending it's going to be easy," Shafer said. "That's why we're out here doing this and all the other outreach."

The education program includes a mock election August 17 at 11 locations across the county. Machines also will be used in all early-voting locations this November, and demonstration units will be located at every polling place for the March 2002 primary elections.

By November of that year, every Harris County resident who wants to vote in person will have to learn how to use the machines.

And, at least for the first year, they're all going to have to learn to be patient.


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