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Optical scan vote coming locally

By LINDA L. HULL, Times Leader Staff Writer and THE ASSOCIATED PRESS 05 February 2005

BELMONT COUNTY'S Election Board will meet on Tuesday to iron out the details of the new optical scan voting system that will be changing years of voting practices in this county as well as others in Ohio.
Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell has given a Wednesday deadline for the state's 88 counties to make the punch cards obsolete.

According to Bill Shubat, director of the Belmont County Election Board, Belmont County has no other choice but to begin using the optical scan.

"There is nothing wrong with our ballot system and the people of Belmont County like it the way it is, but because of the situation in Florida everyone has to change their system," he said Saturday.

Shubat said the new system will count your vote right at the polling place and let you know if you have overvoted, undervoted or you skipped a vote. He said, "It's okay if the voter undervotes or skips a vote, the person just has to go to the poll worker and get them to override the system. They just can't overvote."

By law, a new voting system has to be chosen by the state's counties by Wednesday, or the Secretary of State's office will chose one.

Shubat noted that the cost of the machines would have been too much for Belmont County to pay for except for the hard work of U.S. Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio).

He said, "I can't tell you how hard Bob has worked for us with the Federal funding he's come through for us."

He added, "When the Help America Vote Act" was passed Bob worked to get the money from the federal government. I can't say enough about him (Ney). There is only so much money for Ohio and we needed help."

Shubat also stated that the fiasco in Florida during the previous election was something that could have been prevented.

He said, "The reason there were hanging chads and all the other problems was because those machines need to be cleaned out periodically. If they don't get cleaned out the chads that stay in the machines will prevent a clean punch."

Shubat continued, "We here in Belmont County love the punch card system but our problem is if we don't take the money from the government to replace our punch card system now, later they may decide to do away with it and then we definitely wouldn't have the money to replace the system on our own."

Franklin County has enough concerns about Wednesday's deadline for choosing a new voting system to ask the attorney general whether the state's elections chief exceeded his authority by giving counties less than a month to decide.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien wants to know if Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell could legally require counties to choose from only optical-scan machines, which read marks voters make on paper ballots.

States must rid themselves of punch-card voting by November 2006 under the federal Help America Vote Act.

Congress passed the law in response to the 2000 presidential election, whose outcome was in doubt for more than a month after the vote.

Ohio's earlier plan allowed an option of electronic touch-screen voting machines as well as optical scan.

But On Jan. 12, Blackwell ordered the county election boards to choose an optical scan system from one of two optical scan vendors by Wednesday, or his office would choose one for them.

Even counties that already have optical scan must replace them because they're outdated or their systems don't include required counting machines in each precinct instead of a central location.

O'Brien on Thursday asked Attorney General Jim Petro to issue an official opinion on whether Blackwell was within his authority.

The earlier plan went through a federally required process of public comment, the governor's signature and submission to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission for approval, O'Brien's letter said.

''Does the secretary of state have the authority to unilaterally amend that plan?'' he asked.

Petro's office has made no decision on whether to issue an opinion, Petro spokeswoman Kim Norris said.

Only Franklin County had requested an opinion as of Friday, she said. Petro and Blackwell, both Republicans, are candidates for governor in next year's election.

Blackwell was acting within his authority when he issued the Jan. 12 directive, spokesman Carlo LoParo said Friday. The public comment period and other requirements apply only to a preliminary plan, he said.

After the original plan was approved and counties started choosing systems, state lawmakers passed a law requiring that voters be able to see their vote on paper before it's recorded.

Blackwell said optical scan is the only affordable option to meet that requirement. No touch-screen machines with paper printouts of ballots are yet approved; if there were, they'd be too expensive, his office said.

''Congress will hold the secretary of state responsible if Ohio is not in compliance with the act,'' LoParo said.

O'Brien said he hoped to have a response from Petro by Monday - two days before Blackwell's deadline. He would not speculate on whether he would go to court to get the deadline extended or removed.

''We'd like to see what the attorney general's opinion is. A timely response is what we're looking for,'' O'Brien said.

As of Friday, 17 of Ohio's 88 counties had chosen between the two available optical scan systems certified by state and federal officials, from Diebold Election Systems or Election Systems & Software. A third vendor, Hart InterCivic, has sued Blackwell over its exclusion.

Some local elections officials have complained about Blackwell's directive and the tight deadline. Also, some counties are holding special elections on Tuesday with the old equipment for more than 60 local school levies and other ballot issues.

''We had no indication prior to Jan. 12 that anything was going to change,'' said Hamilton County Board of Elections director John Williams, whose county was preparing to buy electronic machines made by Hart InterCivic. ''Three weeks is just not enough time to a vendor.''

Other counties complained about the costs of installing and operating the optical scan machines. Franklin County board director Matthew Damschroder estimated it would cost the county $1.7 million to buy new voting booths.

LoParo disputed the figure, saying the county that includes Columbus could outfit its 788 precincts with the most expensive booths available for $590,000.

Michael Vu, director of the Cuyahoga County elections board, said he agreed with O'Brien's request and complained that Blackwell gave election officials only 27 days to voting equipment.

''It's a huge concern of mine,'' Vu said.

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