Montana Public Radio

Touchscreen Voting Machines Could Debut In Montana This November

Aug 26, 2019

The Montana Secretary of State’s office plans to sign-off on a new touchscreen voting system designed for voters with disabilities that could be used at county polling sites as early as this November.

The ExpressVote system resembles a touchscreen desktop computer or ATM. Voters insert a ballot, scroll through pages of candidates or initiatives and make their picks, and then hit print.

The system includes audio, visual, and other aids designed to help individuals with disabilities vote.

A separate machine does the vote counting.

The Secretary of State’s Office and system developer ES&S ran demonstrations of the device Monday in the state Capitol ahead of an official certification event scheduled Tuesday.

Staff with the Secretary’s office say the ExpressVote system is replacing an outdated device from the early 2000s that was also designed for people with disabilities.

The state is using $750,000 of a $3 million federal grant to buy the equipment, with counties chipping in matching funds if they want to take part in the upgrade.

According to Election Director Dana Corson, Lake, Gallatin and Chouteau are the only counties not using the grant funds to buy the 3,500 ExpressVote machines.

Until this year, ballots from ExpressVote would have been illegal in Montana. Lawmakers, with near unanimous backing during the most recent session, created a new exemption so election ballots wouldn’t all have to look alike.

While voting officials say upgrading the system was necessary, the idea was initially met with resistance from some disability rights advocates concerned about voter privacy with the potential for a small number of people with disabilities turning in ballots that looked different from traditional ballots.

The bill was amended to require local election officials to encourage people with and without disabilities to vote on the machines.

Beth Brenneman with Disability Rights Montana says the new voting system is a positive step for voter access.

"These are machines that people generally like. Although right now we’re trying to figure out how they can be used by people with sensory impairments. I don’t know how user friendly they’re going to be; and how independent people are going to be when they’re voting. I think they’re going to need some support from election judges."

The Secretary of State’s office says the new system must be in place 60 days before an election if it is to be used for that election’s voting. That time period will include equipment testing.