Saturday, August 14, 2004

Punch-card ballots raise new worries

Ohio says voting accurate; critics call it a 'train wreck'

By Cindi Andrews
Enquirer staff writer

Therese Ash of Norwood uses a punch-card voting machine. Ohio is bracing for a potentially close election with the old system.
Four years after the presidential election hung on a few chads in Florida, Ohio is bracing for another potentially close race with the same troublesome punch-card ballots.

State and county officials promise an accurate count, but critics are skeptical.

"We are headed for a train wreck because the state has not done its job," said Scott Greenwood, general counsel for the Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union,which is suing the state over the continued use of the old-fashioned ballots.

Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell helped draft a 2002 federal law giving states millions for more accurate voting machines.

But worries about security of the machines derailed Blackwell's effort to bring electronic voting to his own state in time for the Nov. 2 election, which means 69 of Ohio's 88 counties will still use punch cards.

Voters in Hamilton, Butler and Warren counties will pick their candidates this November by punching out chads, just as they have for the past 30 years. (Voters in Clermont County use optical scanning machines to record votes.)

How ballots are cast and counted will be under intense scrutiny this year, partly because of the concerns over the 2000 punch-card debacle and partly because of Ohio's position as a battleground state.

"The top two (battlegrounds) are clearly Ohio and Florida, and, ironically, there have been a lot of concerns raised about voting equipment in both of those states," said Daniel Tokaji, an Ohio State University law professor working with the ACLU.

Consider how important just a few mistakes can be.

In 2000, Bush won Ohio by 165,019 votes over Al Gore out of 4,795,989 ballots cast for president. The secretary of state's office says 93,991 votes for president were invalid, most of them because people made mistakes with the punch-card ballots.

In Hamilton County alone, that meant 6,437 people cast ballots that weren't counted. According to the ACLU, those who have ballots thrown out are most likely to be minorities. The ACLU's suit contends that African-Americans were almost seven times more likely than other Hamilton County voters to choose too many candidates for president.

"If we have a close election here in Ohio, we're in big trouble because we're using a voting system that doesn't handle close elections very well," Tokaji said. "The margin of victory could well be smaller than the margin of error, and that's when you're risking an election night meltdown."

Florida's counties have encountered some glitches in their switch to ATM-like electronic machines or to optical-scan ballots, which are similar to standardized tests. A special election held using electronic machines earlier this year in Broward County recorded 134 blank ballots in a race decided by 12 votes.

Such reports make many area officials and voters glad Ohio didn't make the switch this year.

"I think the simplicity the machines offer can be beneficial, but the security and hacking concerns need to be addressed," Fairfield resident Paul Flood said after voting in the Aug. 3 special school election. "To rush that would be a folly."

Most of Kentucky switched to electronic voting well over a decade ago. Boone County Clerk Marilyn Rouse said voters and workers alike find it easy and reliable.

Franklin County, which includes Columbus, is one of the few Ohio counties with an electronic voting system, but it doesn't have a verifiable paper receipt, which the Ohio General Assembly recently insisted upon as a security measure.

State and county elections officials are hoping to keep voter error and other problems to a minimum by preparing for this election as never before. Blackwell's office, which oversees elections, is planning a multimedia advertising campaign and beefing up its how-to guide for voters, said Carlo LoParo, director of voter services.

Hamilton County will retrain its 4,000 poll workers, even though they were just trained for the March election, county elections director John Williams said. The county will send cards to all registered voters notifying them of their polling place.

"Elections really are about procedures," Williams said. "If you have good procedures and they are well thought out, that's a giant first step."

After 2000, Ohio clarified some procedures with a new law that specifies how ambiguous ballots are to be handled.

If two or fewer of a chad's four corners are still attached to the ballot, that's considered a vote. If three corners are connected, it's not a vote. If it's clear that a ballot was inserted in the voting machine backward, the votes may be transferred onto a new ballot and counted.

Bipartisan teams of elections officials inspect every ballot for such problems before putting them in the counting machine.

Florida's problems have made voters themselves more aware of the potential pitfalls, said Susan Johnson, director of Warren County's Board of Elections. She sees people who vote absentee at the board offices hold their ballots up to inspect their handiwork.

One longtime voter, Norwood resident Therese Ash, suggests a more common-sense approach: "Just read the instructions and ask for help if you need it."


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