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A ballot box for all

Wadena County is introducing a new voting machine for the fall election season to enhance the voting capacity of people with disabilities. Beginning with the September primaries, voters can use the AutoMARK voting machine to cast their ballot.

The machine has features that accommodate people with sight and hearing impairments, as well as dexterity disabilities, said Rosalie Miller, election administrator. The AutoMARK meets the requirements imposed by the Help America Vote Act of 2002. HAVA was passed to ensure that all Americans can vote independently, she said.

"[We] want them to vote with privacy and dignity," Miller said.

Previously, some disabled voters had to get an absentee ballot or bring someone with them to the polling station to assist them, Miller said.

The AutoMARK has a digital screen with a ballot image. Users push buttons on the screen using their finger or a stylus to select their choices. The voter then takes the printed ballot from the AutoMARK to the M-100 counting machine. Using printed ballots allows the county to have a paper trail in case there is any controversy with the election results, Miller said. It takes approximately one minute for a single-sheet ballot to print and a little tug is needed to remove the ballot from the machine.

The machine has earphones with a computer voice telling the voter what to do and letting them know what they have done. Voters can control the volume and the tempo of the voice system. The controls on the machine are also labeled in braille. Sight-impaired users can use a zoom feature to enlarge the words on the screen. The screen of the machine can convert to high-contrast black and white for color blind voters.

A unique feature of the AutoMARK is a dual switch option that hooks up to a sip and puff device used by some individuals with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Muscular Dystrophy or who are paraplegic, Miller said.

The machines are not only for people with disabilities but are available for anyone to use, she said.

HAVA mandated that all polling places use an accessible voting machine by Jan. 1, 2006. The county received a $169,000 share of the $29 million state grant from the federal government to meet the requirements. The money was earmarked for AutoMARKs first, Miller said. Counties could use whatever money was left over to purchase M-100 counting machines and to set aside money for AutoMARK programming costs in future elections. The county purchased 16 AutoMARKs and five new M-100 ballot counting machines for a total of 12 M-100s.

Because HAVA mandated one AutoMARK per polling place, Miller said, Wadena County asked some of its cities and townships to combine their polling stations to save money.

Election judges and clerks underwent five hours of training from Elections Systems and Software, the company that produces the AutoMARK, in July, Miller said. The county will hold demonstrations at various locations to provide people with an opportunity to become familiar with the machines.

"Something new always seems to scare people," she said.

The AutoMARK demonstrations will be held at the following locations:

• 1-4 p.m. on Aug. 29 at the community room in Humphrey Manor in Wadena

• 1-3 p.m. on Aug. 30 at the Senior Center in Menahga

• 12:30 p.m. on Aug. 31 at the Sebeka Senior Center

If interested voters cannot make it to one of the demonstrations, Miller said they can come to the courthouse, where a machine will be available.

The combined polling places for the fall election season are:

• 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. residents of Sebeka City will vote at the Sebeka Fire Hall. From 10 a.m. to 8 p.m residents of North Germany Township, Red Eye Township and Rockwood Township will also vote at the Sebeka Fire Hall.

• 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. residents of Nimrod City will vote at the Nimrod Community Hall. From 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. residents of Orton Township, Lyons Township and Huntersville Township will also vote at the Nimrod Community Hall.