Shelved voting machines now help decide student elections

MUKILTEO – Not all of Snohomish County’s old touch-screen voting machines were put out to pasture in the switch to all-mail elections.

Dozens of the machines now play a key role in deciding battles at the electorate’s dog-eat-dog frontier: high school student-body elections.

Each spring, county election workers program the voting machines with the names of the teenage candidates competing in student elections.

They plug them in at a few dozen high schools to encourage the newer generation of responsible voters.

Using the machines is a way to give students the real deal as far as voting, said Nina Bakketun, Kamiak High School’s ASB advisor and science teacher.

“The hope is that they take that experience and become voting citizens when they turn 18,” Bakketun said.

These are the same machines that tens of thousands of registered adult voters cast ballots on for president, governor and initiatives.

This was the first year for students at Kamiak High School to use the county’s voting machines; 830 voters cast their choices on eight loaned machines.

“This is way better than passing out ballots the way they used to,” said Christian Spencer, 17, a junior at the high school. “This is way more official.”

Students organizing the elections promoted the machines to drive up the turnout.

“We said we went high-tech this year,” said Chris Dugovich, 18, a senior and ASB vice president. “So far, there are way more (voters) than usual. We’ll see how that goes.”

Having the voting machines this year has further professionalized the school election, which brings respect and participation, Dugovich said.

Students agreed.

“It seems like it’s a lot easier and faster,” said Beth Dodd, 17, a sophomore. “It makes it feel more like you’re voting for president, more real.”

High school elections are just like their counterparts: Turnout doesn’t seem to break about 60 percent, campaigns are costing more and the speeches are full of promises.

“They always promise that the school will be more spirited and there will be better assemblies, and the students want to hear that their prom will be the best ever,” Dugovich said.

The county auditor’s office spends some of its elections budget to program the machines with candidate names, as well as deliver and pick up the machines.

The students tally the votes from paper printouts.

County election officials used to print paper ballots for some high school elections. Officials started loaning the machines a day at a time for high school elections starting in 2003.

“We’re trying to get students excited and involved in voting,” county auditor Carolyn Diepenbrock said. “It’s part of our voter education program.”

Otherwise, there’s little use for the machines. They are the Sequoia Edge I model, and there’s no buyer for them because the Edge II models are on the market, Diepenbrock said.

Officials bought 1,000 electronic voting machines with much fanfare for $5 million in 2002.

But almost all of the machines were shelved in 2006 in the face of the rising popularity of absentee voting and a $1 million price tag for state required machine upgrades.

The county traded 285 old touch-screen voting machines for 75 more modern machines that are used for disabled voters or voters who don’t like the vote-by-mail system.

The county plans to make them available at the Auditor’s Office and the Everett Transit Center and to expand to include some libraries, Diepenbrock said.

Of the county’s machines, 350 are in a county warehouse and are up for sale. Another 175 machines are being saved as backups for election emergencies – especially with the presidential election looming in 2008.

“We never want to be in a place where there’s not enough voting equipment for an election,” Diepenbrock said.

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