Sunday, March 28, 2004

Counties under the gun

The clock is ticking on four Ohio counties. Secretary of State Ken Blackwell has ordered Hamilton, Montgomery, Clinton and Highland counties to choose a new voting machine system by the end of Tuesday. If they don't, Blackwell says he will choose for them - and announce his choices at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Most Ohio counties that use punch-card voting machines, as does Hamilton, have opted for newer technology. But early this year, the Hamilton County Board of Elections voted unanimously to ignore Blackwell's original Jan. 15 deadline.

Board members cite security issues with new touch-screen electronic voting systems, documented in studies Blackwell commissioned. "We'd be better off and we'd feel more comfortable when the secretary can say the problems have been fixed, and he's certified them," board chairman Tim Burke said Thursday. "We're being asked to pick a system on the assumption that they will be certified."

But Blackwell spokesman Carlo LoParo said that's not quite the case. The three manufacturers involved have made all the corrections outlined in the studies, LoParo said, but the funding for Blackwell's office to check the corrections and certify the machines is included in the election-reform money the state Controlling Board has refused to release - at the request of counties and state lawmakers. "It's an interesting Catch-22," LoParo said.

Even if a new Hamilton County system is chosen this week, Burke said, it won't be in place for the fall election - but voters won't suffer.

"The punch card system, I believe, has served Hamilton County very well," Burke said. "When it's maintained properly and when the ballot is laid out correctly, we get very accurate results. We don't have the kind of problems that were experienced in Florida."

Still, he added he has "some real problems" with punch cards. Unlike touch-screen systems, they allow "overvoting" - voting for too many candidates in a certain race - that can invalidate a vote. "That's especially a problem in races with multiple candidates" such as the Cincinnati City Council race, in which voters choose nine out of two dozen or more candidates. "Between 2.3 percent and 2.5 percent of people who vote for City Council overvote, and none of their votes cast for City Council count," Burke said. "There's a lot of candidates out there who would love to have that 2.5 percent."

Ray Cooklis

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