MERCER – After inserting his sample ballot into one of the optical scanners that will record Mercer County’s votes in the Nov. 5 election, Paul Bengs found the process simple.
“That was pretty easy,’’ said Bengs, a Worth Township resident.
He and his wife, Gladys, visited the Mercer County Courthouse Wednesday for a demonstration of the county’s new voting system. The couple are among the voting veterans who will go “back to the future” with the new procedures.
“We’re going back to paper ballots,’’ said Jeff Greenburg, Mercer County director of voter registration and election.
Voting with the new equipment will be straightforward, he said.
When voters enter their precincts on Election Day, a poll worker will give them a paper ballot. The voters will fill out their ballots by coloring in ovals next to their selections – similar to how school students take standardized test. After completing their ballots, they feed will them into the scanner, which will count the votes on the spot.
Votes are recorded in a memory stick locked up in the scanner. When the voting day ends, a poll worker will use a key to remove the stick then take it to the courthouse where the information will be downloaded and the votes are recorded.
The counted ballots are stored in secure blue box locked within the machine. A poll worker takes the box to the county warehouse, where the ballots will be stored.
“Poll workers will never touch the ballot,’’ Greenburg said.
For more than 10 years, including the May 2019 primary, Mercer County used computer technology that didn’t provide a paper trail of votes cast.
“If any questions rise up on election results, the paper ballots are there to check votes,’’ Greenburg said. “We’ll always have a piece of paper to go back to. That should give voters comfort over anything we’ve had in the past.’’
The scanner takes just a few seconds to record a ballot, followed by a message on the device’s screen that acknowledges the ballot has been cast.
“This system is much easier for our voters and poll workers,’’ he said.
A ballot marking device will be available at each precinct, Greenburg said, primarily for Americans with Disabilities Act compliance. People with disabilities will be able to cast their votes with the marking device, which also provides a paper record of votes cast.
“The ballot shouldn’t leave your possession at any time,’’ Greenburg said.
All 90 of the county’s precincts in the county will have a standard scanner for paper ballots and a ballot marking device.
Poll workers will be able to easily deal with voter errors, he said.
“We can hand the voter a new ballot,’’ Greenburg said. “Never cast a ballot you’re not comfortable with.’’
The scanner will alert people if they cast an overvote — when a voter fills in too many ovals for a given race — but not undervotes, when they leave some places vacant.
The price for the actual purchase of voting equipment from Omaha, Neb., based ES&S was $976,000. But total costs will soar past $1 million, including ancillary items such as tables and privacy screens at all precincts to ensure nobody is peeking over voters’ shoulders as they cast their ballots.
Those items added $28,000 to the bill.
“But that was the cheapest bid,’’ he said. “The next cheapest bid was over $80,000.’’
Mercer County got a $118,000 federal grant to help pay for the equipment.
He said Mercer County has adopted new voting systems five times since 2000. Going through those has prepared Mercer County election staff and voters alike for yet another change.
“We’re battle-scarred,’’ Greenburg said. “It gives me all the confidence in the world that we’ll be fine.’’
The county also has held demonstrations Tuesday in Greenville and Thursday in Hermitage, with upcoming trials from 10 a.m. to noon Oct. 29 at the McQuiston Center by the Park in Sandy Lake, and 2 to 4 p.m. Oct. 30, at the Grove City Senior Community Center. County residents can also visit the election office at the courthouse to try out the new system, if they give advance notice.