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Officials give scanners vote of confidence Electronic balloting procedure set to debut throughout county

Out with the levers. In with the scanners.

A new era of voting begins this Primary Day when new electronic voting machines replace levers at polling places throughout Erie County, except the City of Buffalo, which will get the machines next year.

For the past 40 or 50 years, voters have cast ballots the old-fashioned way -- closing a curtain and pulling levers for the candidates of choice.

But on Tuesday, for the first time voters will use paper ballots that are electronically scanned. The new procedure is part of the Federal Election Commission's Help America Vote Act of 2000 that mandated states upgrade their voting systems.

The process promises to be simple, quick, reliable and accurate, local election officials said.

This is how it works:

An election worker rips off a ballot from a party ballot book -- green for Democrats; cherry for Republicans; canary for Independence; granite for Conservatives; and tan for Working Families.

The election worker gives the ballot to the voter and sends the person to a privacy booth, where the choices are filled in with a black pen. The voter then takes the ballot to the machine and feeds it through the scanner.

"It's not as hard as people think," said Dennis Ryan, the county's deputy Republican election commissioner, adding that staff will be deployed all over the county to help with setup and procedures.

"We've been training for two weeks. We're running eight classes a day, training 3,000 on a totally new procedure," he said.

A training session Friday afternoon at the Harlem Road Community Center drew about 50 election workers who learned about the new equipment. By many accounts, the upcoming primaries should go off without a hitch.

"I've been doing elections for 20 years. It'll be smooth sailing Tuesday. The new machines seem easy," said 55-year-old Joseph Ognibene of Williamsville.

"It might be a little nerve-racking at first, but at our age, we're used to things being a little nerve-racking," said Emily Taylor, 82, of Williamsville, who was seated next to 88-year old Alice Zont.

"We'll just go with the flow," Zont said.

Next year, the new machines will be used in the City of Buffalo. The delay has been an issue of space, Ryan said. Towns tend to have better facilities, he added.

"It's a question of logistics of polling places themselves. In towns, they use schools and fire halls. There's enough room and enough chairs. In the city, they set up in hallways," Ryan explained. "We don't have tons of activity in the town [for the primaries], but it is enough to get our procedures and instructions down."

Although it has taken New York State since 2000 to implement the new mandate, the slow pace benefited voters because it gave other states a chance to work out the kinks first, officials said. The equipment to be used here is the same finally settled upon by Florida following voting irregularities there during the 2000 presidential election, Ryan said.

Another benefit to the paper ballot is that it serves as a fail-safe mechanism that protects the voter's privacy, election officials said. After each ballot is scanned, it goes into a secured drop box and can be hand-counted if necessary.

"People should feel confident their vote will be counted," Sion said.

e-mail: dswilliams@buffnews.com

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