City Likes Kerry

City Likes Kerry

New voting machines make debut in primary Tuesday.

Alexandria voters went the way of the rest of the Commonwealth and overwhelmingly selected Massachusetts Senator John Kerry as their Democratic candidate for president.

Slightly more than 16 percent of the city’s registered voters cast ballots in the first Democratic presidential primary since 1988. Kerry received 7,303 votes, or 53.2 percent of those cast; North Carolina Senator John Edwards got 3,163 votes, or 23.1 percent; former Vermont Governor Howard Dean came in third with 1,526 votes, or 10.3 percent; Wesley K. Clark received 1,120 votes, or 8.2 percent; Al Sharpton got 264 votes, or 1.9 percent and Dennis L. Kucinich received 207 votes, or 1.5 percent.

“It’s really hard to compare voter turnout with any past election because the last Democratic presidential primary was held in 1988 and that one was in March, much later in the primary cycle,” said Tom Parkins, Alexandria’s registrar of voters.

“When we began the day, I would have guessed that we would see between 15 and 20 percent voter turnout and that’s what we got. As primaries go, it was pretty average.”

The real news for the primary in Alexandria was the new electronic voting machines. The city purchased eSlate last year and used it for the first time on Tuesday.

“Like anything, there is a learning curve,” Parkins said. “However, I was very pleased with the way things went. Our office only received 10 calls complaining about the system. That’s about what we got with the old system.”

Most of the concerns were about change. “Turning the knobs is too complicated,” one voter said after using the system. “I was afraid I was going to enter the wrong identification number.”

OTHER VOTERS complained that there was no paper trail for voter verification. “I really understand this concern and if the General Assembly wishes to do so, this system can be retrofitted to produce paper verification at some later time,” Parkins said.

eSlate was purchased at a cost of about $750,000 and was implemented two years before the national deadline for localities to procure Americans with Disabilities Act compliant voting systems. Blind voters used voice ballots with eSlate and were able to vote independently for the first time in Tuesday’s election.

Those voters who needed curbside service still had to use paper ballots. “I am hoping that the General Assembly will change the law and allow us to carry eSlate out to those who need curbside service,” Parkins said. “It is portable and would be just as easy for those folks to use. For now, though, we had to take them paper ballots.”

eSlate has a relatively small font and some visually impaired voters had a hard time reading the screen. “Anyone with difficulty reading the screen could have requested a voice ballot,” Parkins said. “Also, by next summer, the next version of eSlate should be certified and will allow us to use larger fonts.”

Before this fall’s presidential election, Parkins and his staff plan to conduct a voter education campaign. “We are going to take eSlate out to civic organizations, use cable access television, send out mailings to city residents and have eSlate at festivals to show people how to use it,” he said. “We want people to be comfortable with the new technology before the next election.”

There may be a Congressional primary in June, which would give Parkins and his staff another opportunity to test the system in a real election. Otherwise, the next election will be in November.