For the first time in several decades, Albemarle County and Charlottesville residents will vote using paper ballots on Tuesday.
“The voters will get a paper ballot and they will fill in the bubbles next to the candidates of their choice in a marking booth,” said Jake Washburne, the county’s registrar. “And when you’ve filled it out, you bring the marked ballot over to the digital scanner and you slip in into the machine.”
Both jurisdictions have purchased digital scan machines for all precincts in order to comply with a 2007 law passed by the General Assembly. The law requires localities to replace existing equipment with methods that leave a paper trail.
“That came partly as a result of the 2000 presidential election and the hanging chad in Florida,” said Jim Heilman, secretary of the county’s electoral board.
“People had concerns that the touchscreens could be hacked,” he added.
Each scanner cost $5,750 and the county purchased 38 of them at a total cost of $218,500. Officials also bought 32 AutoMark handicap-accessible devices at a total cost of $31,840.
Charlottesville’s new voting equipment also uses paper ballots and digital scanners though city officials selected the Hart Verity system.
The cost to Charlottesville is around $270,000 for 12 scanners, 12 handicap-accessible devices, software and other equipment. The city will receive $25,000 in credit for returning its used voting equipment back to the company, which is the same manufacturer of the new equipment.
Both machines operate the same way. After voters make their selections, they place the paper into a scanner that reads the ballot, tallies the vote and drops the paper into a bin for storage.
“That way, at the end of the night, we get a results tape in case there is a question at some future point about the accuracy of the tabulation,” Washburne said. “It shouldn’t be too terrifying for everybody. It’ll just be different.”
Heilman said he expects unofficial results will be posted quicker than before because there is only one scanner per precinct.
Each ballot bin can hold up to 2,500 ballots. If one fills up on Election Day, the precinct chief will pause that machine to empty it.
“For this election, which is a generally low turnout election, each precinct is getting one of these scanners,” Washburne said. “But next year, when we expect a heavy turnout, for our four largest-precincts we’ll have two scanners.”
Years when presidential or statewide races are held tend to have higher turnout than ones without. In 2011, turnout in Albemarle was 35 percent but that rose to 72.5 percent in 2012.
In some ways, the new machines are a return to how voting used to be conducted.
“In Albemarle County, it was up until the early 1960s that people voted with paper ballots, but those were hand-counted as opposed to being counted by machines,” Heilman said. “Then Albemarle bought big mechanical machines with the big red lever.”
Charlottesville moved to lever machines in 1958, according to city Registrar Rosanna Bencoach. They had been using paper ballots since the late 19th century. In 1984, the city began using punchcards that were counted using a computer.
Since 2002, the city has used a paper scanner for absentee voters who cast their ballots via mail.