citybeat (2006-30)

The Machine behind the Curtain

Take the new voting machines for a spin

Try It Sober

Old City offers more than just late night entertainment

The Machine behind the Curtain

This mandate came with federal funding. Knox County replaced 343 Shouptronic machines with 500 eSlate machines at a cost of $1,596,866, and the federal government covered $1,003,570 of the total. Tennessee certified four vendors from which counties could choose: Diebold, ES&S, Microvote and Hart Intercivic. Election Administrator Greg Mackay assembled a 17-person task force to decide which machine to purchase, and Hart Intercivic’s eSlate machine was the favorite.

Cynthia Andresen sat on the task force. She is in charge of Services for Students with Disabilities at Pellissippi Technical Community College and sits on the City’s Council on Disability Issues as well. Andresen, legally blind herself, said around 1,000 Knox County voters are registered as disabled with the election commission. She estimates a similar number have not disclosed their disabilities.

Andresen praised the eSlate machines for versatility and ease of use. “The eSlate machine doesn’t have a steep learning curve,” she said. The machines have headphones so people with poor eyesight can hear choices and instructions, and foot switches and ‘sip and puff’ devices can be attached to allow people with significantly diminished motor function to cast their votes unassisted. “Once the word gets out about how easy these machines are to use, people with disabilities will hopefully exercise their right to vote more often,” Andresen said.

The eSlate machines are quite simple. A wheel moves a cursor. You click a button to make selections. Mackay said response during early voting has been “pretty positive. Most voters think they are real simple to use.” There is an online demo available at knoxcounty.org/election, and the election commission has had a demonstration machine in its courthouse office for months. Mackay and election commission staff took machines all over the county in recent months to give people a chance to try them, focusing particularly on seniors, since they do most of the voting. Early voting locations are equipped with demonstration machines so voters can try them out before voting for real. You can early vote until 8 p.m. on Saturday, and election day is the following Thursday, Aug. 3.

Ease of use is not the only advantage of the new machines. Votes are stored in triplicate and cannot be erased by power failures or surges. Electronic and paper recounts are possible. Paper ballots are no longer needed because write-in votes can be cast on the machine itself, but the election commission printed paper ballots for emergency use. By state dictate, voters will not be given paper ballots unless machines lose power or break down. Provisional balloting will still be done on paper.

Because the new machines are smaller and lighter, Mackay expects the county to save money on shipping and delivery, which costs around $10,000 per election with the Shouptronic machines. The election commission also spends $30,000 per year storing machines and will need less storage space once the old machines are surplussed. Also, fewer machine operators are needed, reducing training and payroll expenses.

The new machines make it easier for election officials to program ballot combinations. With federal, state and local districts overlapping in strange ways, there are over 150 combinations of races countywide. On the old machines, each combination had to be programmed separately, but eSlate software makes it possible for a single machine to present all possible combinations as needed.

Barbara White of Hart Intercivic said the eSlate software was made available for inspection by an independent testing authority, as is required for federal certification. The use of proprietary software in voting machines is a concern among election watchdogs, and Diebold machines have been shown to have gaping security holes. Their machines have crashed during elections and have failed to produce reliable vote counts. ES&S machines have also been plagued with problems, and in May the company told Davidson County it would deliver used machines for the August election and new machines at a later date.

Knox County’s chosen vendor has experienced fewer and less serious problems. Their optical scanners have occasionally failed, but those are not part of the system used here. Machines programmed to cast straight party-line selections with a single click ended up confusing voters and yielding anomalous results, but the system presents a summary screen so voters can review choices before submitting their ballot, and most voters catch and correct such errors. The machines are equipped with a modem to report results over phone lines, but Mackay said that feature will not be used. “We don’t want to be on the network,” he said, citing security concerns. Mackay is well versed in the security and reliability concerns related to electronic voting machines, and he believes the eSlate machines will serve Knox County well.

Try It Sober

In 2004, Dewhirst became the first developer in the city to receive tax increment financing (TIF) for the development of the Fire Street Lofts in a rundown industrial building. Today, nearly 30 residential units have been sold, with 11 units in the nearby Hewgley Park Building and even more units in the Emporium Center and the Commerce Lofts.

“It’s matured,” Dewhirst says of the old bar district. “People think the Old City was more popular back then. It was maybe more popular for bars. But it’s more energetic today.”

Christian Prestegaard, who partnered with John Gilpatrick in 2003 to open The Urban Bar and Corner Cafe, agrees. “It’s a good area of town to do business in,” Prestegaard says. “I know our clientele consists of a lot of regulars, which is what you look for.... I think retail is really the last ingredient that the Old City needs. The more retail that gets in here, the better.”

There’s Magpie’s, Jackson Avenue Marketplace, The Complex, Old City Market and Old City Java, one of the few all-ages, alcohol-free concert venues in town. And just recently, The Basement Gallery opened its doors to showcase more of our local artists, helping to extend the First Friday artwalk into the Old City proper.

Next door, above the market, Host Clothing opened this past month, as an agglomeration of the thoughts of Adam Deal, Meredith McGill and Craig Kandel. The result is a multi-purpose studio space, a place for everything from t-shirts, to vinyl records, to independent comic books.

And in the Fire Street building, Dewhirst will open six commercial units, with five units actually on Fire Street, the alleyway that runs behind the Emporium and Sterchi Lofts. If redevelopment efforts go according to plan, the dingy alleyway will be beautified with cobblestones, at a buildout price of more than $200,000. “The units are still under construction right now,” Dewhirst says of his potential commercial spaces, “so it’s hard to totally visualize. We hope to rent or sell all of the units in the next several months.

“Back in the early ’90s,” Dewhirst continues, “there might have been a few trendy, temporary bars. Now, the Old City is as busy during the day as it is at night. It’s much better off today, much more well-rounded than it was 15 years ago. A lot of those early bars were really neat when they opened, but they tended to go in a cycle.”

“There’s definitely been an upsurge,” Prestegaard adds. “It’s more or less a pendulum. There’re always better periods then worse periods. And [after the exit from James White Parkway to Summit Hill closed down], business obviously declined some. And of course, when they closed the Gay Street viaduct, we could feel the impact from a lack of accessibility.”

But what just about every Old City entrepreneur sees is possibility. Once the exit from James White Parkway is usable—if current projections ring true, that will be sometime next year—Prestegaard predicts a massive boom in the area.

“All of this, of course, interacts with the homeless situation,” he says, “which is arguably the largest drawback in this area. Ultimately gentrification will take care of some of these issues.”

Amy Nolan, spokesperson for the city, says that growth should continue, systematically moving down from Gay Street. “I think what you’re seeing is that residential units are moving down naturally from the 100 Block. That kind of environment grows organically on its own. That’s really the way it should work.”

And that’s the way it has always worked. “The Old City has done it itself,” Prestegaard says. “There’s definitely some pride in making something better than it was, without assistance.”

In mid-to-late-September, the Volunteer Ministries will be moving out of their Gay Street offices, heading just north of the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue, where they will be better positioned when they reopen the 5th Avenue Motel (that buildout is scheduled to begin in November).

“The good thing about the Old City is that it didn’t dry up and die,” Dewhirst says. “It reinvented itself.”

SEVEN DAYS

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