ELIZABETHTOWN - Officials at the Essex County Board of Elections are looking to give voters in the region some hands-on experience with new voting machines.
Election commissioners have planned two voter outreach programs in Essex County where voters can practice using the new OptiScan voting machines, which were mandated to replace lever-style machines used here for the past 50 years or more.
"There's a misconception among voters that they're going to be voting electronically," said Republican election commissioner Derinda Sherman. "This is not a touch screen system. People are filling out their own ballots," said Democratic election commissioner Robert Pell-duChame. "People should not fear this system."
Still, there's some concern voters, especially the elderly, who may be intimidated by the change. That's why the Board of Elections is putting the machines in service early, to get voters more familiar with them.
A few of the machines will be in operation in Floral Hall at the Essex County Fair, Aug. 11-15. A similar program is scheduled for the Newcomb Senior Picnic in late August.
A third mock election is being organized at the Board of Elections office in Elizabethtown, but a date has yet to be set.
As Sherman explained, voters will fill out a paper ballot, not unlike absentee ballots used in past elections. They will then feed their ballot into the scanner, which "reads" their votes and tabulates them.
"They will simply fill out an oval next to their candidate choice," Sherman said.
If a voter makes stray marks or marks the name of too many candidates for the same position, the machine will indicate the error and ask if the voter wishes to redo their ballot.
In that case, the old ballot becomes a "spoiled" ballot and is set aside - kept, but not counted. The voter is issued a new ballot to mark and feed into the scanner.
"Every voter has up to three chances," said Sherman. "They will be issued up to three ballots."
Instructions for voters will be printed on every ballot, and posters will be hung at every polling site to illustrate the new voting process.
"It will not matter which way they put the ballot in," said Sherman, "it will scan it."
All the cast ballots are collected in a locked box within the machines and can be counted by hand if needed.
The machines require electricity to run and are equipped with backup batteries in the case of a power failure. If the machines lose power or otherwise fail to operate, the paper ballots will be collected in a secure emergency ballot box within the machine and counted later.
"With the lever machines, if something happened with the election, we weren't always able to recreate it," said Sherman. "With these, we have several ways we can recreate the election."
Pell-duChame said voters should feel very secure knowing poll inspectors have all been fully trained with the new machines.
For people with disabilities who are unable to fill in their own ballot, there will be electronic ballot marking devices available to allow for accessibility and privacy. The devices have a variety of interfaces that will help the blind, deaf, or motor-impaired print a ballot that represents their choices.
For more information, voters can contact the Essex County Board of Elections by calling 873-3474.