March 22, 2001 11:00 pm

By The Observer

In the old days, there were paper ballots, counted by hand.

Then came the punch-card ballots and hanging chads.

In the future, there again will be paper ballots, but theyll be counted by a high-speed computer scanner.

Union County Clerk Nellie Bogue Hibbert and other county officials watched a demonstration this week of the new high-tech machines.

The machines are not only fast, theyre costly. A scanner that counts 8,000 to 10,000 ballots an hour costs $45,000. The slower scanner that counts only about 2,000 or 3,000 each hour costs $20,000.

Paul Griego of Election Systems and Software, who demonstrated his companys counting computer, said between 750 and 800 U.S. counties use scanning counters.

Optical scanners read the marks that voters make, similar to the way a standardized test works in high school.

Griegos machine spits out overvotes, counts ballots that are torn, and does a number of other tasks to help the election workers.

Bogue Hibbert said that most counties in Oregon are using optic scanning equipment.

Legislation is being considered in Salem that would require that punch-card ballots be eliminated by 2004 in seven counties, including Union County.

No decision has been made as to which equipment the county will purchase, but Bogue Hibbert said that 2001 is a window of opportunity to make a transition. We hope well have a fairly small November election. Thats the best chance to get the bugs out.