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Petro says state can't mandate vote systems
Attorney general at odds with Ken Blackwell
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
Mark Naymik ClevelandPlain Dealer Politics Writer

Ohio voters should not sharpen their pencils just yet.

Attorney General Jim Petro said Tuesday that the secretary of state can't force election boards to use optical-scan voting systems that rely on pencil and paper.

Petro's announcement clouds the future of voting reform in Ohio for the second time in as many months, and re-ignites the debate over electronic voting machines. 
 Secretary of State Ken Blackwell last month ordered counties to scrap plans to upgrade voting systems with electronic touch-screen voting machines.

With control of the federal money set aside to pay for the upgrade, Blackwell told counties they must use optical-scan systems, which are cheaper than touch-screen ones and count paper ballots containing circles marked with pencil or ink.

Only 13 of Ohio's 88 counties now use such systems, including Geauga County.

Blackwell, who is expected to face Petro in the Republican Party's 2006 gubernatorial primary, gave election officials until today to choose one of two companies that make optical-scan machines approved by the state.

Petro responded to a challenge to Blackwell's directive from Franklin County.

Petro said that the secretary does not have the authority to dictate how independent boards conduct their elections.

Carlo LoParo, a spokesman for Blackwell, called Petro's interpretation of the law "inexplicable" and a "sudden change" in policy.

He said Petro has consistently supported similar directives, pointing to Blackwell's 2004 order forcing officials to choose one form of electronic voting, either touch-screens or optical scan. In February, Blackwell changed his mind, limiting upgrades to optical scan.

"[Petro] is playing politics with a federal mandate," LoParo said, referring to the Help America Vote Act, which requires states to upgrade their punch-card systems.

LoParo said Blackwell expects local election officials to ignore Petro's interpretation.

In light of Petro's opinion, however, Cuyahoga County Elections Board Chairman Bob Bennett said the board will study optical-scan systems.

Bennett said the board will conduct that study while negotiating a contract with Diebold to provide more than 6,000 electronic voting machines.

"We are 98 percent complete with our contract," Bennett said, describing the touch-screen system as "the most up-to- date and forward-thinking system."

Bennett, also the Ohio Republican Party chairman, criticized Blackwell for issuing the directive without input from county officials.

He likened the secretary's decision-making process to "operating a coal mine at midnight" where there's "no light shinning on the most important decisions."

Blackwell fired back, suggesting that Bennett's decision to spend more money on touch- screens is driven by the companies that make the machines.

"Having owned a couple of coal mines in my career and hav ing married into a coal mining family, I know that coal mining is an honest day's work," he said. "I would prefer being in the darkness of a coal mine than in the darkness of some vendor's hip pocket."

Before learning of Petro's decision, elections officials in Cuyahoga County had refused to endorse the optical-scan system, arguing it would be too costly in the long run and doesn't eliminate potential voting errors.

"This is not a step forward," Bennett said during Tuesday's board meeting.

"At the very best, it is a step sideways, but probably a step backward."

Although optical-scan machines are more expensive than touch-screen or punch-card machines, fewer are needed to run an election because of their greater efficiency.

But election officials in many counties have long opposed them because their operating costs - mainly for paper and printing ballots - are far higher than operating costs of other systems.

Cuyahoga, for instance, spent nearly $200,000 last year on punch cards and ballot booklets. Using an optical-scan system, of ficials said, the cost could go as high as $872,000.

The paper and printing costs of optical-scan systems are high for two reasons. First, ballots must be printed on heavy stock so they feed smoothly into the scanners.

Second, the ballots must be large enough to include all the candidates and issues - typically larger than a sheet of legal-size paper.

Punch-cards ballots are tiny by comparison, because candidates and issues are listed in ballot books shared by hundreds of voters.

In Lake County, where touch- screen machines have been used for years, officials object to scrapping a system they view as highly accurate and efficient.

Elections Director Jan Clair said the county still owes $800,000 to a California company for a $3 million electronic touch-screen system bought in 1999.

And while federal money is expected to pay for the new machines, the associated paper costs are expected to skyrocket.

"We spent about $900 for the presidential election on paper, but it would have cost about $122,000 if we had to use paper ballots," she said.

"The money isn't in our budget this year for that."

In Lorain County, which still uses punch cards, optical scan would double printing costs from $80,000 to $160,000, officials said.

But money isn't the only consideration. Optical-scan ballots are so heavy when bundled that officials worry whether election- day poll workers can even lift them.

"Some of our poll workers are not young, and the sheer weight of them will be cumbersome and heavy," said Marilyn Jacobcik, director of the Lorain County Board of Elections.

"This is a step backward in technology."

Plain Dealer reporters Mike Scott, Steve Luttner, Catherine Gabe and Sandy Theis contributed to this report.

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