Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Voting on voting expected today

Board of Elections asked to choose balloting system

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Hamilton County Board of Elections will make a critical choice today - and quite possibly more than one - about how its voters will cast ballots in future elections.

The bipartisan, four-member board is under pressure to choose a new voting system to bring the county into compliance with the Help America Vote Act. Despite increasing questions nationally about the security of electronic voting, and even though Ohio has until 2006 to phase out punch-card ballots, Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell issued an ultimatum to the board last week: Either pick a machine by today, or his office will.

The first question for the board, therefore, will be whether to comply. It meets at 4 p.m. today in the board room at 824 Broadway, downtown.

Hamilton is one of five of Ohio's 88 counties that has not picked a machine. The election boards of two of those holdouts, Montgomery and Lucas, have deadlocked in the past week on which voting system they want. Clinton County refused to pick and Highland County has not responded, Blackwell spokesman James Lee said Monday.

"I don't think we can defy the directive at this point," said Todd Ward, a member of Hamilton County's board. "It is certainly not in the best interests of Hamilton County voters to have a system or company selected by the secretary of state because that system might not be the most appropriate for us.

"More than likely we'll make some selection."

But they won't do it happily.

"I believe there are serious questions that still must be answered if we are to conduct successful negotiations and properly introduce this new technology to our voters," Board of Elections Director John Williams said in a letter asking Blackwell, the state's top election official, for more time to decide.

Lee's response: "The county boards of elections were given ample time and all the resources one can imagine to arrive at a decision."

Security is a top concern. Stories in the national media, including the April issue of Vanity Fair, raise questions about whether touch-screen voting machines could have bungled results in Georgia and other states. One fear is that results could be changed by hackers or crooked election workers or company employees.

Lawmakers in Congress, the Ohio General Assembly and other states are also weighing whether to require paper trails - receipts voters would get verifying their selections. However, it's unclear whether a printout would be more trustworthy than the results voters see on their touch screens, and advocates for the blind say it would prevent them from keeping their votes private.

Ohio lawmakers are more than a little sympathetic to Hamilton County's position.

"We're not pleased with anybody being put in this spot, either being forced to make a decision or, worse, having a decision made for them," said state Rep. Kevin DeWine, a Greene County Republican who sits on the joint committee studying election reform.

In fact, he'd like to give all of Ohio's counties a chance to reconsider their decisions in light of recent discussions.

"I think what I'm concerned about is us rushing into something this year," DeWine said. "The technology isn't quite there yet; the voter confidence isn't there yet; the training hasn't been done yet."

The only part of the equation lawmakers control, however, is the money. The State Controlling Board is refusing to release some $130 million in federal money to Blackwell for the voting machines pending the outcome of hearings by the election reform committee.

The committee won't conclude its work until mid- to late April, said DeWine, its vice chairman.

Blackwell wants 31 counties to install new voting equipment in time for the August special election or the November presidential election. County election officials had a choice of three vendors with which Blackwell struck deals: Diebold Election Systems, ES&S and Hart InterCivic.

Diebold, selected by Butler, Warren and at least 41 other Ohio counties, is under investigation by the California Secretary of State's Office for installing new software without first getting it certified by the state, according to Doug Stone, a spokesman for that office.

Diebold is based in Texas but its parent company is headquartered in North Canton, Ohio.

Not all area counties face a multimillion-dollar decision. Clermont County uses an optical-scan system, in which voters fill in circles with No. 2 pencils, and Kentucky counties have touch-screen voting.


E-mail candrews@enquirer.com

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