CHARLESTON -- The recent Kanawha County table games referendum resulted in some highly publicized problems involving the use of paper ballots, sparking some lively discussions about the advisability of using such ballots and how this type of ballot should be counted.

Certainly not since the infamous "hanging chads" episode in Florida in the 2000 national election has the West Virginia public paid so much attention to the method of casting one's vote! At the heart of the issue of using paper ballots is the issue of counting these ballots in the precinct.

Some local and state news organizations reported that counting paper ballots at the precinct level was a new development for this election. However, that is not the case. A little background on this subject may be in order.

In the early 2000s, many states were beginning to make use of early voting, and then-Secretary of State Joe Manchin encouraged the West Virginia Legislature to adopt early voting. The law was changed, and in 2002, for the primary and general elections, West Virginia voters got to vote early before the actual election day.

At that point, clerks in counties using paper ballots had the option to count early votes at the court house or at the precinct. Most chose to send the early votes back to the precincts to be counted with the rest of the ballots

During the 2003 legislative session, the law was changed to mandate that all paper ballots (both early and election day ballots) to be counted at the precincts. Those changes took effect for the 2004 primary and general elections.

There are many people who like the idea of a paper ballot. It is easy to use, and obviously leaves a "paper trail." But it is also the easiest ballot to manipulate by someone wishing to engage in such shenanigans. It's easy to "lose" paper ballots, or to add marks (votes) to them not intended by the voter. They are also the most time consuming to count by poll workers who have already spent a grueling day at the precincts.

In West Virginia, only Wyoming and Braxton counties continue to routinely use paper ballots (although Wyoming County also uses electronic voting machines as well). Officials in both counties seem to prefer them and don't mind counting them at the precinct level.

The point of contention during the table games vote in Kanawha County was over the transferring of early vote paper ballots from the courthouse back to the precincts. Many observers said early votes should stay at the courthouse for counting on election night, even though West Virginia law since 2003 has mandated otherwise.

We have seen the problems that can arise when paper ballots are counted at the precinct. But the truth is, there are problems either way. Counting all the early paper ballot votes at the courthouse on election night is a tremendous workload, compared to dividing them up among the various precincts for counting.

Conversely, it isn't unrealistic for counting teams at the precinct level to count ballots well into the morning hours. Why? Because for a paper ballot system, manual counting is the only method to tabulate the results -- there is no method of electronic tabulation.

On the other hand, counting paper ballots in the various precincts can result in exhausted poll workers unintentionally missing a few votes, or getting confused on the count as registered on the tally sheets, as happened with the table games election. Fortunately, every vote was eventually found, and all legal ones counted, and that's always the main objective of every election.

Most of the time, election complaints come to our office primarily during municipal elections, which mostly continue to use paper ballots. Municipal elections are typically overseen by the very City Hall officials who are also on the ballot. Counting all paper ballots at the precinct level helps to discourage "mischief," and prevents a mayor or local recorder from being accused of interfering in the counting of ballots in his or her own election. (On a side note, many cities might want to consider saving money by changing their elections to coincide with every-other-year county elections so election costs can be shared.)

Because of the problems inherent with paper ballots, I have worked hard to transition our state to electronic voting - either via touch screen with a paper trail, or optical scan paper ballots that are machine counted.

In the big scheme of things, there are relatively few elections that utilize simple paper ballots. And even though electronic voting can be costlier, in the end it might actually save money by lessening the problems that cropped up during the table games election in Kanawha County.

As always, the most important goal of any election is to make sure the will of the voters is accurately reflected by the official results. We learn new lessons from almost every election, and my office is committed to ensuring that voters have confidence in the safe, secure and accurate counting of their ballots, and in the integrity of their elections and their election officials, regardless of which voting method the electorate uses.

Ireland is the Secretary of State of West Virginia.

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