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Published: Sunday, 11/20/2005

Election woes (continued)

Although delayed results are not the worst problem that can happen in an election, the first experiment with electronic voting machines clearly points to a need for the Lucas County Board of Elections to isolate the problems that occurred Nov. 8 and make it clear to voters what went right and what went wrong. The problems cannot simply be waved off until the next general election in 2006.

The board has come up with several differing explanations for delays in vote-counting, the latest one being that there was not enough space in a secure room to process election returns. There was room for only six tabulation machines, as against, for example, Montgomery County, where Dayton is located, which used 13 machines to count a somewhat smaller number of votes.

A couple of points need to be made about the performance of the Diebold touch-screen machines in Lucas County. For one thing, the machines generally worked well, and voters seemed to cope with them, even if they had little computer experience. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many voters, young and old, liked using them.

Two other problems emerged, however. One was that the machines seem fragile, and one has to wonder how durable they are. They were equipped with printing devices - to produce the so-called paper trail - that looked as if they had been purchased at a five-and-dime store. Printouts resembled cash-register receipts, flimsy and trouble-prone.

A more serious problem is that there is no provision for connecting the precinct voting devices via modem to the board of elections, where staff members had to upload 1,665 individual memory cards that were hand-delivered downtown. That is comparable to writing an e-mail message, putting it in a stamped envelope, and dropping it in a postal box - hardly the way to run an election in the 21st century.

We understand that the use of modems to transmit voting results is prohibited by the Secretary of State's office, ostensibly for security reasons. But that doesn't make sense because the election-night vote count is unofficial and must be verified later.

Which brings us to what may be the root of all the problems - the person occupying the Secretary of State's office, Ken Blackwell.

While blame for the slow count can be apportioned among election officials, computer-resistant poll workers, and technology glitches, a generous share falls on the shoulders of Mr. Blackwell, who is too busy running for governor to take adequate care of one of his basic duties, which is supervising the election process.

As Ohio's chief election officer, Mr. Blackwell must ensure that all county boards are prepared to conduct fair and efficient elections, even if it means sending in state personnel to supervise the process. He cannot simply throw up his hands and blame local officials for their inexperience or feign concern by placing the board under "administrative watch."

Unfortunately, Mr. Blackwell seems to be an apostle of hands-off leadership. How can he claim to be ready to be governor of Ohio if he can't run proper elections?

We wonder, too, whether the Lucas County board has been well served by Diebold, whose officials are said to have promised the staff that the vote could be handled in a timely fashion with so few counting machines.

The upside to all of this is that voting in Lucas County on Tuesday generally went smoothly and voters had a positive experience with the new touch-screen technology.

Moreover, the board's top staff members, Director Jill Kelly and Deputy Director Mike Badik, have promised to find out what went wrong with the count and correct the organizational and technical problems before the next election.

We will hold them to their word.

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