COEUR d'ALENE - Kootenai County elections officials today will use a brand-new ballot scanner and tabulator, making the county the first in the state to use the machine.
The Election Systems and Software Digital Scanner 850 - or just the DS850 as it's known in the elections office - cost the county $100,500 after a trade-in of some older equipment. The expected payback period is five years.
"Granted the machine was expensive, but in the long run the cost savings is huge," county elections manager Carrie Phillips said Monday morning. "When we were looking at getting this machine, we weren't thinking about being the first in the state. We were thinking about what's best for our county."
Now the number of workers needed by the county tonight will be reduced by two-thirds with the use of the DS850. Also, the county will use only one machine tonight instead of three of the older machines because of the DS850's more user-friendly capabilities.
"The test run went great," Phillips said. "All of our prior testing (up until Monday) has gone well."
The true test will be when the county runs absentee ballots through, because of the volume of folded ballots.
While the county traded in two of the older ballot tabulators, one was kept as a backup. It was tested Monday and was ready to go.
The DS850 has been in use in counties in Florida and Ohio, two major battleground states, since early 2012. The machine was certified for use by the Idaho secretary of state in February 2013.
One of the primary benefits of the new machine will be the major reduction in staff time spent getting absentee ballots ready for the machine count.
Absentee ballots can get bent, warped and just plain beaten-up as they spend time in voters' possession prior to being returned to the county.
In past elections, county elections workers spent a lot of time backfolding absentee ballots, rolling them, and putting 25-pound weights on top of them to flatten them out.
"The feature (the DS850) has with the S-curve of how the belts go through is supposed to help with creased ballots," Phillips said.
The DS850 scans and sorts 14-inch double-sided ballots at 300 per minute, sorting ballots into three categories: those that are counted, those that require further review, and write-ins.
The machine can sort without stopping, and there is no need to manually orient ballots all in the same direction before they are inserted. Those capabilities reduce handling time by election workers.
The DS850 also generates more specific reports, which county officials hope will reduce the staff time spent in the past researching anomalies during the canvassing process.
And for those who follow the election results online as the votes are counted, the new machine is supposed to make it easier to get the information posted. The machine uses a flash drive, eliminating the need for zip disks, an outdated and expensive technology.
Phillips said the first election results should be available online by 9 p.m. and the final results should be available by 11 p.m.
The company Election Systems and Software is headquartered in Omaha, Neb., (on John Galt Boulevard). The machine, though, was primarily manufactured in Germany.