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Published: Sunday, 1/16/2005

Dumping the touch-screens

With his latest U-turn on the tortuous road to voting reform in Ohio, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell has demonstrated once again that consistency in decision-making isn't his strong suit.

Mr. Blackwell's directive that all 88 counties must adopt a voting system of paper ballots, marked by hand and read by optical-scanning devices, is a safe and predictable one. At the very least it will rid the state of the unreliable punch-card voting systems still in use in 69 counties.

But a number of counties that have recently invested millions of taxpayer dollars in touch-screen electronic voting machines will be faced with tossing them out and starting over with optical scan - all by Feb. 9.

In fact, if the Lucas County Board of Elections had promptly complied with an order from Mr. Blackwell nine months ago to adopt touch-screen voting, it would now be reversing that process at great cost. Sometimes it pays to be dysfunctional.

The secretary of state, who is Ohio's chief elections officer, cited fiscal reasons for the optical-scan mandate. Not enough money has been appropriated by Congress, he said, to deploy touch-screen voting statewide without financially strapped counties being forced to chip in. And the legislature made touch-screen voting even more expensive with its decision last year to require a voter-verifiable paper trail.

Try telling that to election officials in places like Lake County, northeast of Cleveland, which spent $3 million to convert to touch-screen and has been using the system without problems since 1999.

Likewise, officials in Cleveland are plenty steamed since they just made a decision to move from punch cards to touch-screen. Michael Vu, Cuyahoga County elections director, calls the Blackwell ruling "not acceptable," pointing out that it was made without consulting county election officials. Six counties in all now must discard their touch-screen machines.

The secretary of state does have the backing of the County Commissioners Association, which cited the difficulty counties are having balancing their budgets. Fiscal problems are a worry, to be sure, but money shouldn't be the only concern when it comes to elections.

The presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 provided ample evidence of the need to make counting votes an exact science. But when it comes to ponying up for state-of-the art voting equipment, all we hear are complaints about how much it costs. We can't think of anything more important in a democracy than knowing precisely how many votes were cast for each candidate or issue.

Optical-scan voting, although considered reliable, is not state-of-the-art and is not without its drawbacks. The system, in use statewide in Michigan, is cheaper than touch screen to begin with, but becomes more costly in the long run because of the expense of printing, handling, and storing the paper ballots.

Lucas County, which used optical scan countywide last Nov. 2, more than doubled its election cost. A major factor was ballot printing, including extra expense for reprinting that resulted from hemming and hawing by Mr. Blackwell that preceded his last-minute decision to rule Ralph Nader off the presidential ballot. As a consequence, absentee ballots were sent out late, causing confusion.

In addition, as Toledo voters discovered on that wet Election Day, the optical-scan devices, which count votes at the precinct level, get gummed up and stop working when they are fed ballots dampened or dripped on by voters who've been out in the rain. That's a decidedly low-tech problem.

What Ohio needs is a voting system that the electorate can trust, and optical-scan voting may provide it, at least for the short term. We continue to believe that concerns about hacking and vote-stealing attached to the touch-screen technology are overblown and hyped by needless paranoia.

That means that the day eventually will come when electronic voting is a reality, rather than a political football, in Ohio.


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