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Punch card cast aside in elections

County boards approving optical scan machines for ballots. Voters will mark circle next to name

By Julie Wallace

Beacon Journal staff writer


Area voters will be casting their ballots in a different way in the near future.

Gone will be the punch-card ballots that have garnered so much controversy since the 2000 presidential election. In their place will be what can best be described as a throwback to the bubble tests from high school those that required filling in a circle next to the correct answer with the mandated No. 2 pencil.

That's a simplified but pretty accurate explanation of how the new voting machines work. They are being approved this week by mostarea boards of election.

Voters will step into a booth and use a pen or pencil sorry, pencil makers, the No. 2 isn't required to mark the circle aligned with the candidate of their choosing. They'll then take the paper and feed it into an optical scan machine at the precinct.

That machine will tabulate the precinct's votes on a memory card similar to what is found in a home computer. At the close of voting, that card will be carried downtown and fed into a bigger machine that will compile the data from all of the precincts.

The optical scan machines were the latest choice presented to boards of elections across Ohio by Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell.

Last year, Blackwell's staff recommended touch-screen machines made by four companies to comply with the federal Help America Vote law that requires punch-card ballots to be eliminated by November 2006.

Optical scan machines were included in Blackwell's recommendation at that time, but they garnered scant attention as the touch screens took center stage.

The touch-screen machines, however, sparked concerns about ballot tampering and their lack of a paper trail for recount purposes.

So on Jan. 12, Blackwell switched gears sending out a new directive to election boards around the state. That directive gave them the choice of two optical scan machines one made by Election Systems & Software of Omaha, Neb., and another by Diebold Election Systems of Green.

In both cases, the voter's paper ballot the one he or she marks is retained by the elections board, should the need for a recount arise.

Blackwell gave the election boards until Wednesday to pick one of the systems or said he would do it for them. That has prompted more than a little grumbling from election officials who have said Blackwell gave them too little time to decide.

Locally, however, election boards are moving ahead on their decisions despite the controversy.

On Monday, the Summit County Board of Elections chose not to choose voting unanimously to allow Blackwell to determine which system would work best for it. That's the same route the board took when it was told to pick a touch-screen machine last year.

That vote came after Bryan Williams, the board's director, said there were pros and cons with each system. A panel of nine staffers looked at both, he said, and generally preferred the Diebold setup but the recommendation wasn't strong enough to persuade the board to make the setup its choice.

``I don't think there's a clear choice, and I'd rather not make it,'' said board member Alex Arshinkoff, chairman of the Summit County Republican Party.

Last week, Medina County chose Diebold mainly because the machines and its new voter registration system are compatible, said Janet Pilat, deputy director.

In Portage County, a vote on a machine isn't expected until tonight. Director Lois Enlow said the choice of machines will be up to the board so she couldn't discuss which one would receive the nod.

In Wayne County, Director Patty Johns said a vote that most likely will be favorable for Diebold will take place today.

And in Stark County, the elections board voted Thursday to Diebold. That was also the favored system for the touch screens, and it seemed to be the best system with better support services, Director Jeff Matthews said.

Despite the switch to optical scans, the controversial touch-screen machines aren't disappearing entirely.

Each precinct will have one to serve special-needs voters, such as those who are blind or unable to fill in the bubbles themselves.

The reduced number of touch-screen machines will provide a big saving to the state, at least for the initial equipment outlay.

The state has about $107 million in federal money available to change over its voting machines. Under the earlier plan, it would have cost about $180 million to equip all of the election boards with enough touch-screen machines to equal one machine for every 200 voters. The optical scanning machines will cost about $100 million statewide, meaning the federal money will cover most of the costs associated with them for the counties.

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