Of all the voices demanding voting reform after the 2000 Florida debacle, none has been more insistent than ours. Ever since the disputed presidential election, we have argued that Ohio, along with all states, must do everything possible to ensure that every vote is cast and counted accurately, regardless of the cost.
Now reform is in sight, although we have reservations about whether a majority of Ohio's county election systems can be replaced and ready for another presidential vote by next year. Still, the outlook is encouraging.
Congress has, albeit belatedly, provided at least half of the $150 million necessary to replace Ohio's outmoded and confusing punch-card voting devices with state-of-the-art electronic models that have demonstrated greater accuracy and ease of operation.
Money is being allocated to educate the public in the use of the new machines and to train poll workers who will supervise the voting.
Individual counties will be able to select the voting machine vendor local officials prefer, although the contract process and the money will be funneled through the state.
A voting reform advisory panel assembled by Secretary of State Ken Blackwell foresees the new system as being ready to go statewide by next Feb. 1. That is a very tall order, since punch-card voting systems must be replaced in at least 69 of 88 counties, including Wood County, which collectively serve 72.5 percent of Ohio's registered voters.
Can it be done? We say it must be done, but done thoughtfully because of the very real obstacles at hand.
To begin with, only a limited number of companies nationally produce electronic voting devices. Inasmuch as thousands of counties in other states will be replacing their systems at the same time, there is considerable doubt whether the vendors will be able to meet demand.
Because of the complicated nature of election administration, much time-consuming preparation is required, including laying out the ballots, setting up machines, and making sure equipment is in working order and that all polling places are properly equipped. And, in many cases, county officials will be working for the first time with unfamiliar computer programming.
Throw in entirely new voting devices and the result could be confusion at the polls, long lines of disgruntled voters, and, in the worst case, an inability to tally votes in a timely manner.
Peg Rosenfield, an elections expert with the Ohio League of Women Voters, recently warned of the danger of introducing a new system in a presidential election year without the shakedown and debugging that should take place in off-year elections, which attract fewer voters.
“I think you're really asking for trouble,” she said. “If anything does go wrong - and it is much more likely the first time around - we could make national and international news, too.”
No one wants another Florida. The Lucas County Board of Elections previously has tried out touch-screen voting and thus is well along in the transition from antiquated lever machines. But some counties may have to seek a waiver that would allow them to put off the switch until Jan. 1, 2006.
The bottom line is that the new system must be operable as soon as possible, and as soon as it can be done right.
The worst scenario would be a calamity on Nov. 2, 2004, when the state and the nation decide on the next president of the United States.
Ohio must not become another Florida, just without the beaches.