Friday, April 2, 2004

Voting machine decision closer

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The future of voting in Hamilton County may be a 12-inch computer screen controlled by a finger wheel.

"It is an absolutely fundamental change in the way we hold elections," Board of Elections Director John Williams said Thursday.

The county board deadlocked on picking a new electronic election system Thursday, but significantly advanced the issue to a conclusion.

Two members voted in favor of Hart InterCivic's 12-inch computer screen machine. Two opposed it. The Hart machine was also the choice of the elections board staff.

Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell will break the tie vote, perhaps as early as today. Blackwell is adamant that counties identify how they want to replace punch-card ballots.

"He has given strong deference to the preferences of board members and election staff," spokesman Carlo LoParo said.

Thursday's vote split along party lines. Republicans Michael Barrett and Todd Ward voted for the Hart machine. Barrett is chairman of the county Republican Party. Ward ran for City Council in 2003.

Opposed were Democrats Tim Burke and Daniel Radford. Burke co-chairs the county's Democratic Party. Radford is head of the AFL-CIO Labor Council in Cincinnati.

All four have reservations about new voting equipment and expressed anger and frustration at being forced into a decision by Blackwell, the state's chief elections officer and a Republican.

The statewide effort to update voting systems is part of the federal Help America Vote Act. Ohio will get about $133 million to make sure Florida's hanging-chad dilemma of 2000 is not repeated here.

The new voting guidelines include requirements that people with disabilities be able to vote privately and that the system not allow overvoting.

With punch-card ballots, if a voter chooses, say, 10 Cincinnati City Council candidates, none of those choices counts because nine is the limit.

"As a result, we're losing as many as two and a half percent of the votes cast" in council elections, said Burke. "That's too big of an error rate. The beauty of any of the touch-screen systems or the Hart system is you can't overvote."

Still, Burke and others say punch-card ballots have never caused the trouble here that they caused in Florida. The county uses heavier card stock for the ballots and a more pointy stylus for punching through the chads, Williams said.

He said he liked Hart best of the three electronic voting choices because it kept the most control at the local level.

"It seemed to us ... that the Hart system was the simplest and most streamlined and simplest for the Board of Elections to manage," Williams said.

The board was also influenced by recent reports in the national media and from Alameda County, Calif., officials alleging security and other problems with the competing Diebold system. Diebold was selected by a majority of Ohio's 88 counties, including Butler and Warren.

Blackwell had set a deadline of Tuesday for all punch-card counties to pick a voting system. Board members unanimously approved a report saying two members wanted Hart and two refused to give a preference.

Blackwell field representative Christian Lobb told the board the secretary did not consider that a vote. It was not clear whether he would give the report any weight.

"My concern is our report is going to end up in the round file," Barrett said.

The county estimates it will need 3,962 voting machines for its 500,000 registered voters.

Federal support will be between $8 million and $10 million. Another $3 million may have to be spent locally.


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