BEFORE proper administration of the 2004 presidential election is jeopardized in Ohio, the legislative committee in Columbus studying voting-machine security should give up its intransigent attitude and clear the way for approval of $128 million in federal funds to pay for new touch-screen equipment.
Such a move is especially urgent now that Secretary of State Ken Blackwell has broken a tie and directed the Lucas County board of elections to purchase the latest in electronic voting devices.
State approval of the federal funds is necessary so that Lucas County can avoid having to lease equipment to replace the antiquated and broken-down lever machines that have been used since 1964. The county's share of the federal money is about $2.5 million.
The longer the legislative logjam persists, the less time counties will have to acquire the touch-screen devices and thoroughly train poll workers prior to the presidential election. Ohio does not want to take Florida's place as electoral laughingstock of the nation, and the surest way to avoid a replay of the 2000 debacle is to get the new equipment in place and the kinks out well in advance of Nov. 2.
To accomplish that, members of the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Ballot Security must put aside partisan motives and do what's best for the entire state. That means banishing forever the punch-card voting systems found wanting in Florida but still in use by 69 of 88 Ohio counties.
What's going on in Columbus is less an honest disagreement over important public policy than a convergence of political interests that can only be described as strange.
Many among the majority Republicans in the legislature oppose releasing the federal money because they don't want to admit the obvious - that this nation's election machinery failed badly in 2000, precipitating a loss of trust in the political process that could take years to overcome.
Democrats, apparently scratching for an issue they can spin to their advantage, have bought into overblown claims that electronic voting can be easily manipulated.
In the middle is Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who has sometimes stumbled badly down the path of voting reform but has at least moved forward to implement provisions of the federal Help America Vote Act, which includes money for the new machines.
We believe Mr. Blackwell, Ohio's chief election officer, made the right call in casting his tie-breaking vote for Lucas County to obtain touch-screen equipment from Diebold Elections Systems.
As we have said before, security concerns with these machines have been exaggerated since they are not tied into the Internet and thus are not susceptible to computer hackers.
One good recommendation from the chairman of the legislative committee, state Sen. Randy Gardner, Republican of Bowling Green, is to set aside any requirement that the touch-screen machines be equipped with printers to provide receipts to voters. Rather than improve the process, such receipts would instead provide collateral for corruption, especially vote-buying. However, Senator Gardner's idea was defeated by his own committee.
The money for genuine reform is available, and Ohio counties are in most cases ready to update their voting systems. All that is necessary now is for state lawmakers to abandon their political games and let the professionals plan a presidential election for Nov. 2 in which each and every ballot will be correctly cast and counted.
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