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Cuyahoga County hurriedly switching to new voting system

By JOE MILICIA
Associated Press Writer
 

CLEVELAND, Jan. 3, 2008 (AP): Cuyahoga County will be one of two counties in Ohio and possibly the largest one in the country to use a voting system for its 2008 primary in which all of the paper ballots are counted at one location.

The county is hurriedly switching from electronic touch-screen machines to an optical-scan system for the March 4 primary after prodding from Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, who considers the optical-scan machines to be more secure. Ballots also would be counted in a central location, rather than at the precinct level.

Van Wert County on the state's western edge also is moving to an optical-scan system for March, and Brunner wants all 55 other counties that use touch screens to switch by November—at an estimated cost of $31 million.

With more than 1 million registered voters, Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, dwarfs many others that use a system in which paper ballots are filled out by voters then returned to a central location—the Board of Election's warehouse on East 40th Street—to be scanned and counted.

``Some people are kind of scratching their heads and wondering, 'Why the central count?''' said Merle King, executive director of the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

Most of the counties that use a central count optical-scan system tend to be smaller, said Kim Brace of Election Data Services, a consulting firm that tracks voting statistics.

``Since 2000 when people discovered the problem with optical-scan systems and that they don't give people a chance to correct their errors, counties have tended to go towards the precinct-count systems,'' Brace said in an e-mail.

In a precinct count system, ballots are scanned at the polling location and voters are be notified if they overvoted or undervoted in any race—so-called ``second-chance voting.''

Brunner said there wasn't enough time for Cuyahoga to use a precinct-based system in March, but that it will be considered for the November election.

Many voting problems were reported in Ohio in the 2004 race between President Bush, a Republican, and Democrat John Kerry, including the accuracy of vote totals in precincts using electronic machines. Kerry conceded the election after narrowly losing Ohio's 20 electoral votes.

In Nebraska, about 30 percent of the 93 counties use a central count optical-scan system, said David Phipps, election commissioner for Douglas County, which is home to Election Systems & Software, the company that Cuyahoga County plans to purchase its new system from.

Phipps believes that counting the ballots at one location allows elections officials to control the process and make sure it's done accurately.

He acknowledged that a central count system doesn't allow for second-chance voting, but he doesn't believe that undermines voters' rights.

``It's just a matter of voter education,'' Phipps said. ``We make steps to make sure voters pay attention and ask for a new ballot if you vote incorrectly.''

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio has threatened to sue Cuyahoga County over the lack of second-chance voting in the new system. But Brunner says that Cuyahoga will follow the Help American Vote Act of 2002, which requires that counties using a central count system provide proper voter education.

``If the ACLU says that's not good enough, they're essentially saying HAVA is unconstitutional,'' Brunner said. ``If they decide to make Cuyahoga County a test case, I think they're doing a huge disservice to Cuyahoga County.''

With about 300,000 registered voters, Douglas County in Nebraska has less than one-third the voters of Cuyahoga County. During the 2004 presidential election, it had about 99 percent of the ballots counted by 1 a.m., Phipps said. Douglas County does a midday pickup of ballots and begins scanning them before polls close, something Brunner, a Democrat, wants the Republican-controlled Ohio Legislature to approve.

Cuyahoga County's results will likely come much later, and officials have already warned that voters won't know the outcome before they go to bed on election night.

Commissioner Tim Hagan believes the optical-scan system is more transparent and has a paper trail, qualities that are more important than speedy results.

Commissioners still must approve the purchase of the new system, which will be $1 million to $3 million for the March primary and $10 million by the November election.

``All of these systems are flawed,'' Hagan said. ``All of these new technologies are questionable, as is the one we are going to adopt. There's no question about that. I think it's less questionable. It's not a perfect system.''

On the Net: Election Data Services: http://www.electiondataservices.com, Cuyahoga County Board of Elections:
http://boe.cuyahogacounty.us/, Help America Vote Act: http://www.fec.gov/hava/hava.htm

 

 

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