Sunday, April 25, 2004

Stop stalling on Ohio election reform


A federal lawsuit filed by the National Federation of the Blind this week against Ohio elections officials adds further evidence that state lawmakers are on the wrong track in their attempts to stall voting reform. Unless they quit obstructing the process, Ohio could face more suits, come under federal scrutiny and even risk losing funds for voting machines.

The federation argues that the state has violated federal law by failing to install new voting equipment that would allow the blind to cast secret ballots without the assistance of another person. It has a good case. One of Congress' major goals in the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which mandated and funded various voting reforms after the 2000 election controversy, was to make voting more accessible to people with disabilities.

The new technology, being acquired through the office of Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, would accomplish that goal for sight-impaired voters, using headphones for audio confirmation of their choices. For the first time in their lives, they would be able to cast their ballots in private.

But the rollout of new machines has been derailed by cynical political games. The state's Controlling Board has refused to release funds to purchase or even certify the machines. A joint legislative committee is insisting that machines be modified to include a "voter-verified paper trail," even though HAVA rejected that idea. Taken to its logical conclusion, it would turn electronic systems into costly printers of hand-counted ballots.

The committee's proposals could mean that the state would have to start the process all over again. That could easily delay the machines past Jan. 1, 2006, after which point the feds could audit the state and take back the $120 million or so for Ohio's machines. In addition, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission may hold hearings on why some states are dragging their feet on HAVA.

Ohio's foot-draggers say electronic vote devices are "paperless" systems vulnerable to fraud, but Blackwell spokesman Carlo LoParo counters that they all have internal paper backup. The backup is not visible to voters, but that's by design.

As for fraud worries, some parts of Ohio, such as Franklin County, and most of Kentucky have been using electronic systems for years without problems. And such systems fulfill another major HAVA mandate: preventing "overvotes," a problem endemic to the current punch-card ballot systems, which invalidates many voters' ballots - about 2 percent of the 4.795 million votes cast in Ohio in the 2000 presidential election.

It's time for state lawmakers to stop playing games with Ohioans' right to have their votes counted fairly and reliably.

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