This year's City Council elections may be the calm before the storm as far as election technology is concerned.
Starting in 2004, new federal rules will require all voters to show identification before they can get ballots. But if they can't, the rules also say they can vote on a provisional ballot. Then they have until 5 p.m. the next day to produce the proper ID. This rule also may catch people who are registered in more than one place, meaning they will have a day to show proof of their current residence and registration.
"It means results will not happen on election night the way they have been happening," Missoula Clerk and Recorder/Treasurer Vickie Zeier told the county commissioners Tuesday. All those provisional ballots will go in secret envelopes and be counted when the voter brings the needed proof. In close elections, that means the final result won't be known until almost a day after the polls close.
Still unresolved are issues such as how to preserve the secrecy of those few provisional ballots, which will have both the voter's identity and choices together.
And that's the challenge on the voter's end of the process. On the other side of the system, matters are even more complex.
The new law requires every state to create a statewide voter registration database. The bad news is Missoula County just installed a new database for its own use last year. The good news is it chose one of the few such programs that have been successfully used on a statewide level elsewhere.
Zeier said she would try to convince the Montana Secretary of State's office to choose the same system Missoula already has.
Technology changes also are coming to the machinery for counting votes. Missoula County is budgeting for a new ballot scanner to replace its 1983-vintage equipment. Those machines are no longer built and spare parts also are unavailable.
The federal law requires at least one electronic voting machine be installed at every polling place. Federal allocations are expected to pay for that upgrade.
In addition, Missoula's county commissioners are wrestling with the choices of buying portable electronic counting machines in small or large numbers. The new machines allow every polling place to tally its own ballots in a secure, computerized format.
The commissioners want at least two of these portable counters for the Seeley Lake and Swan Lake precincts. Election judges now have to hand-deliver those ballots, often in bad weather, late at night.
"We're usually done counting (the Missoula Valley) by 9:30 p.m.," Zeier said, "and then we have to wait an hour or an hour and a half for Seeley to come in."
The new machines would allow those remote polling places to send their results by phone as soon as the polling places closed. The choices for the commissioners are whether to buy machines just for the remote sites, buy one counter for all 45 polling places, or skip paper ballots entirely and go with a completely electronic touch-screen voting system.
"I know there are some people out there who do not want to use anything but a paper ballot," Commissioner Barbara Evans said. In addition, the all-electronic system clouds the fate of mail ballots, which are growing in popularity.
The minimum option of two new ballot scanners and two precinct counters would cost the county $165,000 over two years. A single new scanner and precinct counters for all 45 polling places would cost $550,000. Zeier and the commissioners preferred that option.
Going entirely electronic would cost about $1.1 million.
All this is supposed to be in place by the presidential elections in 2004. However, the challenges of installing a new statewide database will probably prompt Secretary of State Bob Brown to request an extension until at least 2006.
By the way, Missoula's City Council election filing period begins Monday.
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at email@example.com