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Lucas County faces $350,000 tab to lease voting machines for Nov. 2 election


If they could have agreed, members of the Lucas County Board of Elections would be buying new voting machines with the state and federal governments paying the bill.

But they couldn't agree, so yesterday the board had to lease temporary voting machines for the Nov. 2 election - with the county forced to pick up the $350,000 tab.

The elections board decided yesterday to pursue a contract with Diebold Elections Systems of McKinney, Texas, to lease optical scan voting machines for the general election.

The lease may need to be extended - and may cost much more - to cover elections next year as well if the elections board is unable to agree which permanent voting equipment to purchase by then, said Paula Hicks-Hudson, director of the county elections office.

"My hope is to bring some finality to this issue next year," said Ms. Hicks-Hudson.

The lease is needed because elections board members could not agree to buy touch-screen units, a $4 million purchase that would have been paid by the federal and state governments.

"The board of elections has in essence placed the board of county commissioners in the position where we are facing a very costly lease agreement," said county Commission Presi-

dent Harry Barlos, who said the commission would likely vote to pay for the rental of machinery out of a special fund established two years ago. That fund was set up to help the elections board move out of Government Center to a more customer-friendly location.

The fund now has a balance of about $1.5 million, he said.

"If they deplete that fund, don't come to us in the future and say 'We want to move,'●" Mr. Barlos warned the elections board. "Because of that squabbling down there, they've spent their trust fund."

"Obviously, this is a lot of money for the taxpayers of Lucas County," said Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak. "But we need to have a proper election.

"I will vote to provide that," she said. "We have to do what we have to do."

The two Republican members of the board - Sam Thurber and Bernadette Noe - voted last month to buy touch-screen units from Diebold, but Democrats Paula Ross and Diane Brown voted against the machines, throwing the board into deadlock and sending the issue to Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell. Mr. Blackwell declared earlier this month that new state election reform legislation prevented him from breaking the tie vote.

In a sharply worded memo to the board, he stated that, because the elections board could not reach agreement on machinery, Lucas County would be prohibited from using state and federal money set aside for it to buy new machines this year.

The county has no voting equipment that elections officials consider reliable. The board yesterday voted to get rid of its 1,100 antiquated lever machines that were last used in the November, 2002 election. The machines experienced widespread failure during that election.

Ms. Noe, elections board chairman, said the optical scan equipment is a good short-term solution.

"It's going to cost us more than we thought it would, but," she said, "it's going to be a fair election. I am confident with the system we will have with Diebold.

"Every vote is going to get counted, and it is going to be an efficient election," she added.

Diebold has submitted a $347,000 bid to the county for the November election, which included the lease for 340 voting machines and consulting expertise to help the county prepare and run the election.

Ms. Hicks-Hudson told the board yesterday she had a second bid from a second voting equipment company for similar services. That bid totaled $310,000. She said the bid could be used as leverage in negotiating a better deal with Diebold.

The board then ordered Ms. Hicks-Hudson to negotiate a deal with Diebold that includes more machines - 386, instead of the 340 proposed by Diebold - and does not exceed the $310,000 bid submitted by the second company, Elections Systems and Software of Omaha.

To cut costs in the Diebold lease deal, Ms. Hicks-Hudson said some consulting services will likely have to be eliminated, including help from the company in training poll workers and in supplying company troubleshooters to help solve Election Day emergency problems that crop up.

Ms. Noe called the line item in the Diebold bid for poll worker training "very high. It's over $40,000."

"I think our people here on our staff have been trained previously by Diebold to train our poll workers, so I don't think we need to rely so heavily on Diebold to do the training that our staff is equipped to do," she said.

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