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Boston's new voting machines face first citywide test

Scanners will tally preliminary election

They've passed out fliers and spoken at churches. They've brought the mayor out to demonstrate, held 170 workshops across the city, and presented a 19-minute how-to video to anyone who will come and see it.

After months of prepping, Boston's new optical scan voting machines will face their first citywide test in tomorrow's preliminary City Council election.

For city election officials, who billed the new equipment as more accurate, more reliable, and easier to use than the old 900-pound lever machines, the stakes are high. It's the first time in decades that poll workers or Boston voters have had to face a whole new technology at polling places. Anxious to avoid mishaps, election officials are offering every opportunity they can think of for practice.

"We've been hitting every place possible," Nancy Lo, Boston's election commissioner, said of optical scan workshops that her department has staged at senior centers, neighborhood meetings, and just about any other gathering that comes to its attention.

The city is spending $10,000 to get the word out on its new system, but some say that's not enough. The New Democracy Coalition, a Boston group that has been critical of the city's quick transition to optical scan machines, urged Mayor Thomas M. Menino last week to commit more resources to voter education before the election in November, when turnout is likely to be much higher.

"The city could certainly do more," executive director Kevin C. Peterson said. "Otherwise, the city will risk an Election Day on Nov. 4 where people are completely taken off guard. It could potentially spell electoral disaster."

The Election Department announced two months ago that it would buy the new $1.5 million scanners to replace the lever machines that have tallied Boston votes since the reign of James Michael Curley. Several voter activist groups protested that the city was moving too fast into new technology or should have gone with touch-screen machines instead of optical scanners.

For election night, Lo said, the Election Department is lining up extra poll workers to offer assistance to voters when they walk in the door.

The new machines require voters to fill out ballots as if taking an SAT test and to feed them into a small white scanner, which registers the vote and drops the ballot into a bin for safekeeping. At a demonstration last week at St. Cecilia's House, a senior center in the Fenway, five elderly women crowded around one of the new machines, asking questions of a translator in rapid-fire Russian.

"How do you fill out the ovals?" one wanted to know.

"Which way do you insert the ballot in the scanner?" another asked.

Stanley James, a part-time Election Department worker giving the demonstration, said the optical scanners have been generally well received, though some voters said they worry about learning a whole new way of voting.

Election workers extoll the virtues of the new system, saying the ballots are easy to understand and fill out and the end results will contain fewer errors. It is also more convenient for the Election Department; while Boston had to hire movers to haul the old lever machines from a warehouse to polling sites, the scanners are about the size of a laptop computer.

Election officials also say the optical scanners will allow them to count the votes much more quickly: Poll workers bring a disk from each scanner to City Hall, where they insert it into a computer to tabulate the votes. In case of a recount, poll workers keep the paper ballots in a vault to feed through the scanner again.

The city already tested the scanners in a special City Council election in December, where they passed with few problems.

Lo, the election commissioner, said the department plans to continue outreach until well past the November election. "It's not like we're stopping tomorrow," Lo said. "It's going to be an ongoing education process for about a year."

Sasha Talcott can be reached at stalcott@globe.com.

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