Government & Politics

Kansas City is looking for your thoughts on new voting equipment

Kansas City election worker checks out new voting equipment

An election worker received a demonstration of how to use a new voting machine in Kansas City.
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An election worker received a demonstration of how to use a new voting machine in Kansas City.

People in Kansas City have a chance to vote on, or at least weigh in on, how they’ll vote. The city plans to dump its old voting machines for state-of-the-art gear by next spring’s election.

Voters, election workers and employees of the Kansas City Election Board played around with equipment from seven vendors Tuesday at Union Station, including touchscreen voting machines, printers and tools to help poll workers with voter register information. Another public demonstration was set for 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Paseo Academy.

The city’s 13-year-old voting equipment is outdated, said Lauri Ealom, the Democratic director of the election board. Printers are slow, ballot machines often malfunction and voter information is sometimes inaccessible for poll workers.

“It’s getting virtually impossible for us to replace the parts,” Ealom said. The upgrade, she said, will be like the difference between a first-generation iPhone and an iPhone 6.

The board will consider public feedback before choosing a new system. It’s looking to keep costs down while finding a solution that’s durable and easy to use for both voters and election workers.

Ealom said the new equipment will be ready for the April election. The election board plans to pick a vendor and the equipment by August.

The current equipment requires multiple steps to operate, and some of the machines take several minutes to warm up after they are turned on. For example, it takes seven minutes for a machine to find an absentee voter’s name and precinct and another two minutes to print an absentee ballot. A new machine would do the same job in 12 seconds.

Streamlining the process will help election workers and voters move more quickly, said Claire Wyatt, who trains election workers.

“A lot of these machines, since they’re so new, you just turn it on. It’s like two steps,” Wyatt said. “That’s pretty awesome.”

Donna Campbell Brice, 72, was enthusiastic about the new equipment, though she said she was skeptical at first. Campbell Brice is an election worker and assists voters who accidentally show up at the wrong polling place.

Right now, if a voter is in the wrong place, Campbell Brice has to search for their name in a computer system and find the correct polling location. Sometimes, she must call someone downtown for help when she can’t find the person in the system.

With the new equipment, Campbell Brice would need only to scan the voter’s ID to find out where they should cast a ballot. She would also be able to change a voter’s address instantly.

“This, compared to what we’ve been doing, would be a whole lot simpler to do,” Campbell Brice said.

Peg Marland, 60, a voter, said she worried that older voters would have trouble with the new technology.

“I think I’d be OK, but I wonder about people that are not so screen-savvy, or older, or something like that,” Marland said.

Still, she thought new technology would cut back on problems at the polls. In November, the ballot machine at her polling place jammed, creating a line of 30 people waiting to cast their completed ballots.

“It looks like it’s newer, so it’s going to work pretty good for a while,” she said. “It looks like it’s pretty idiot-proof.”

Ealom said none of the equipment presents a security risk. The machines are not linked to Wi-Fi, so they cannot be hacked remotely. A hacker would have to break into a machine on-site to have access to ballots.

During an election, votes are tabulated and then called in over the phone — not electronically — to the Missouri secretary of state. That state system, which houses voter information, is the only one a hacker could tamper with, Ealom said.