Thursday, March 25, 2004

Hanging chads proving costly

Voting reform won't come easily

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

New voting machines likely will cost Hamilton County residents an extra $3 million - and will change not only how they vote but where they cast ballots, county elections officials said Wednesday.

Hamilton County expects to get $8 million to $10 million in federal money to buy 2,612 electronic voting machines. That's the number of machines the Secretary of State's Office estimates are needed in Hamilton County.

But the county needs 3,962 machines - a third more than it's getting money for - to tally the ballots of its 500,885 registered voters, according to Board of Elections Director John Williams.

Most Ohio counties, including Butler and Warren, are preparing to switch to touch-screen or optical-scan voting. Optical-scan - like the tests for which students fill in circles with No. 2 pencils - is already in place in Clermont County.

The changes are part of a nationwide effort to retire the punch-card ballots that marred Florida's 2000 presidential vote.

The Help America Vote Act specified that new systems should be running in time for the November presidential election. Several issues have held up implementation, however, and Ohio got a two-year reprieve.

Northern Kentucky counties long ago moved to electronic touch-pad voting. But the switch in Ohio has raised questions about security, funding and whether voters should get a paper receipt.

Hamilton is one of five counties that has not yet selected a voting machine. Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, the state's chief elections officer, on Wednesday told the county: Pick a machine by Tuesday, or his office would make the choice.

"We're in a difficult position here," Williams said. "We are in the middle of due diligence on this."

Three companies - Diebold Election Systems, Hart and ES&S - have struck deals with Blackwell's office to sell voting systems to Ohio counties. Each of the touch-screen voting systems is a little different in how voters get their on-screen ballot and how the votes are collected at the end of the day.

Whichever is selected, officials said, the change will be easier if the county's 1,013 precincts at 593 polling locations are consolidated into more manageable numbers.

"The very first thing the board's going to need to look at is reducing precincts," Elections Administrator Tony Reissig said.

Williams said he'd like to knock the number down to 700. That would require fewer poll workers, reducing the number of people who have to be trained on the new system. It also would mean many voters could wind up casting ballots in new places.

Using polling locations that don't separate precincts into different rooms would also enable several precincts to share voting machines. Even so, Williams said, the county now has one polling booth per 98 voters, and he doesn't want to go higher than one machine per 150 registered voters.

The state is distributing its expected $133 million for new voting machines on the basis of one machine for every 200 voters. The six Ohio counties that have touch-screen voting - including Franklin - average one machine per 242 voters, Blackwell spokesman Carlo LoParo said Wednesday.

"What we found is in the counties that use the electronic voting, voters move through the system faster because they're so much easier to use than punch cards," LoParo said.

A security review last year turned up weaknesses in all systems, which the companies are still fixing.

Also, the money from Washington flowed more slowly than promised, and is now being held up by the state Controlling Board pending the outcome of legislative hearings.

The Hamilton County Board of Elections has scheduled another meeting for 4 p.m. Tuesday.


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