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Hamilton Co. pleads for time on voting machines, to no avail

By Cindi Andrews
Cincinnati Enquirer staff writer   05 February 2005

Hamilton County election officials asked Friday for more time and more options to pick a new voting system - a request that Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell immediately rejected.

"February 9 is just unreasonable," county Board of Elections member V. Daniel Radford said. "We don't have the answers."

After almost two years of planning for new electronic voting machines to meet federal voting requirements, Blackwell told Hamilton and dozens of other Ohio counties Jan. 12 that they must instead one of two optical-scan systems. With those systems, voters use a pencil to fill in ovals next to their choices.

Wednesday's deadline is firm, Blackwell said late Friday.

"I expect that they've had time to assess the different options that the vendors have on very similar equipment, and I would hope that they could make a decision by the 9th," he said. "If not, the process is ratcheted up to Columbus, where I will make the decision."

Optical-scan systems are cheaper to buy, and the state has only $105 million in federal money to spend, according to Blackwell's office. Election officials across the state are concerned optical-scan ballots will cost them much more in paper costs.

Franklin County Board of Elections Director Matt Damschroder estimated the ballots would have added $1.2 million to his costs in 2004.

But the Secretary of State's Office says the paper costs are a wash because of the General Assembly's requirement last May that makers of the electronic voting systems develop a voter-verifiable paper trail.

"I don't know what these people think VVPTs are printed on - they're printed on paper," Blackwell said.

The new requirement also slowed the process. With a May 2006 deadline approaching to replace punch-card systems, the three eligible companies have yet to get their electronic machines recertified with security improvements and the voter-verifiable paper trail.

That, Blackwell's office insists, leaves counties with a choice between optical-scan systems made by Diebold Election Systems or ES&S.

The maker of the electronic voting machine Hamilton County picked - Hart InterCivic - is not an option because its optical-scan system was not submitted during the original bidding process. Hart sued for $4.3 million Wednesday, upset at being shut out of the process at the 11th hour.

Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune attended Friday's election board meeting to voice his support for optical scan but opposition to having such a limited choice. Portune and board Chairman Tim Burke urged Blackwell's office to rebid the state's contract for voting machines so other companies could be considered.

"If there is a better option out there that takes a good decision by the secretary and makes it better, why is everyone afraid of that?" Burke said.

The board recessed its meeting Friday without making - or even discussing - a choice.

Elsewhere in the area, Butler County election officials voted 3-1 Friday to Diebold, and earlier in the week Clermont County picked an d version of ES&S, the maker of its current optical-scan system. The Warren County board will decide Tuesday.

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