This month's municipal elections in St. Pete Beach will give residents the first crack at the new paper ballot voting system that soon will be used countywide.
Voters will fill out a paper ballot with black ballpoint pen that is then fed into an optical scanning unit that reads their selections.
Florida statute requires a change to these optical scan paper ballots across the state by July 1.
"This way there is a paper ballot that can be hand counted if needed," said Nancy Whitlock, the communications director for the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office.
The optical scanner stores the results of each ballot digitally and allows them to be sent to the Supervisor of Elections Office via a modem for quick tabulation.
The paper ballots are then kept as backups to the data files.
Other municipalities holding elections on March 11 will continue to use the touch screen systems. St. Pete Beach residents won the honors thanks to the city clerk, Teresa McMaster, who volunteered to be the first to use the new ballots.
"We selected them because they only have four precincts and we wanted to try it on a smaller scale at first," Whitlock said. "This gives us the chance to use the equipment in an official capacity before we use it countywide."
The new system will be used throughout Pinellas County during the Aug. 26 primary elections.
Beach residents will use the same paper ballots for early voting or voting by mail.
So far the new system has earned a positive response from the public.
"For the most part people said, 'Oh, this is easy. We can handle that,' " Whitlock said after a number of demonstrations in St. Pete Beach last week.
Voter Education Coordinator Nancy Adams said people at the demonstrations seemed very comfortable with the new system.
A touch screen attached to the optical scanner gives prompts to voters who have left an item blank, or voted multiple times in one field, allowing them to correct the ballot or submit it, as is.
If no problems are detected on the ballot, it is fed directly into a locked ballot box.
"I expect most will just go right through," Adams said.
Nick Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 893-8361.