The next big change in Oklahoma elections since the state stopped counting ballots by hand in 1992 is rolling out in February, promising faster election results and more data. Each of the state’s 1,958 voting locations is getting new ballot scanning machines that cost $2,800 each. The new machines and data system will be used for the first time in the Feb. 14 election.
Elections were canceled by lawmakers for December and January to allow the new system to be installed. “We’re very thankful to have that,” said Paul Ziriax, state Election Board secretary. “If we could have an extra month, we’d take it, but we’ll be ready.”
The new scanners will still take paper ballots, only now more of the data from those ballots will be available to the public online and faster than ever before. County election boards will be able to report local results online, something they weren’t equipped to do before. “We’re going to have far more detail than we’ve ever been able to show before,” Ziriax said. “We’ll be able to drill down and see which precincts haven’t reported.”
Oklahoma is paying for the new machines, software and technical training using a federal grant that was provided to help states comply with the Help America Vote Act. The law was passed by Congress in 2002 after the 2000 presidential election debacle.
Ziriax said Oklahoma received about $26 million in federal funding, but will only use $16.7 million in a contract with the Texas-based Hart InterCivic Inc. The contract covers purchasing the hardware and software for the voting machines as well as training for almost 10,000 precinct workers and ongoing technical support.
“We’re confident that we’ll be ready to go,” said Ziriax. “Do you have the potential that an issue could come up? That a hiccup could happen? Of course. But the beauty of paper ballots is you can always go back to the actual ballots and count them by hand.”
He said Oklahoma is one of only a few states that have every county using the exact same election process, a paper ballot that is marked by the voter by hand and then fed into a scanner to be counted.
“One of the things that makes Oklahoma great is our uniformity,” Ziriax said. “Whether you vote in Texas County in the Panhandle or Tulsa County or Tillman County in southwest Oklahoma, it’s the same.”