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Vote machine decision made
eSlate described as easy to use, could be tallying Hamilton County next year

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ohio's chief elections official picked a new electronic voting system for Hamilton County on Thursday that could be in use as early as February.

Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell announced that the county will get eSlate, a machine made by Hart InterCivic of Austin, Texas. With eSlate, voters make their ions by turning a wheel instead of touching a screen, as with the two most popular voting machine brands.

"It's perhaps not the flashiest, and it may not have the bells and whistles, but it works," county Board of Elections Director John Williams said Thursday.

Williams recommended the eSlate and his board deadlocked on it 2-2 last week after Blackwell ignored a request for more time. Security and other lingering questions have prompted calls from some state lawmakers and county officials to delay spending $130 million on new voting machines statewide.

"I think we would all have been better off if we had taken some more time with it," said Hamilton County Board of Elections Chairman Tim Burke, also co-chairman of the county Democratic Party.

A joint committee of Ohio's General Assembly recommended Wednesday that by 2006 all county elections boards be required to allow voters to confirm their choices with a paper receipt. Blackwell supports studying the issue of voter-verifiable paper trails but the technology is unavailable and unproven, spokesman Carlo LoParo said Thursday.

The federal Help America Vote Act requires that all states install machines by 2006 that stop voters from picking too many candidates, allow them to review their choices and allow people with disabilities to vote privately. Blackwell set a deadline in January and another in March requiring the 72 Ohio counties still using punch-card or lever voting to pick a new system.

He negotiated statewide contracts with three companies - Hart InterCivic, Diebold Election Systems and ES&S - and each county had to pick one of their systems. Blackwell is still waiting, though, for the State Controlling Board to release $128 million in federal money to pay for the new machines. It is expected to meet April 19.

Hamilton is just the eighth county - and by far the largest - in Ohio to pick Hart. Texas-based Diebold and Nebraska-based ES&S are the biggest makers of touch-screen electronic voting machines, but recent media reports have raised questions about their security and accuracy. Both Butler and Warren counties picked Diebold. Clermont County and Northern Kentucky have newer technology and don't have to upgrade their voting systems yet.

"We believe based on the totality of circumstances Hart is the most secure," Williams said. "It has no outside ports - you can't stick anything in this machine to try to hack into it."

Also, poll setup and teardown and vote-counting are all easier with Hart, he said: "Any time you can cut out steps in the process, you lessen the chance of error."

Orange County, Calif., with 31/2 times as many residents as Hamilton County, used eSlate for the first time in its March 2 primary. At least 1,200 voters there received the wrong ballot, but election officials blamed precinct changes and training mix-ups.

"We're very pleased with the Hart system," said Brett Rowley, spokesman for the Orange County Registrar of Voters. "We didn't have any problems with the system itself on Election Day. ... Most of our voters found it fun and easy to use."

Williams predicted Hamilton County voters will adapt to the new system easily, too.

"Everybody's a little intimidated with a new technology, but if people go in, read the directions and take their time, I think they will have a very good experience with this," he said.

Portage County in northeast Ohio is the first scheduled to use eSlate in Ohio - in its August election - and two more counties are scheduled to use eSlate in their November elections.

Williams would like to introduce eSlate in any special elections that Hamilton County might have in February, May, August or September 2005 because they will likely involve shorter ballots than the November election.

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