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Published: Friday, 4/2/2004

Voting-machine authorization feud escalates

BY FRITZ WENZEL
BLADE POLITICAL WRITER

Lucas County elections officials now know that the county will replace its hulking lever voting machines with sleek electronic touch-screen units, but a political storm enveloping Columbus is casting doubt over when those machines may be purchased and deployed.

Battle lines have been drawn between Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, who maintains he has the authority to oversee implementation of the new federal Help America Vote Act, and General Assembly members, who hold the funds that will be used to pay for the machines.

At issue is the new equipment's security. Mr. Blackwell commissioned a review last year of the products approved for state use, and said the problems found are well on their way to being fixed. But the state Controlling Board has delayed release of nearly $128 million to buy machines until a legislative panel studies the matter.

Mr. Blackwell, a Republican, ordered county elections boards to choose equipment to comply with federal law, and said Wednesday that Lucas County would buy its touch-screen machines from Diebold Elections Systems of McKinney, Texas, after the county elections governing board failed to reach a consensus on a new system.

"He can be making all the decisions he wants at this point, but until there is a [legislative] decision made on the direction to move forward in, and there is cooperation between Blackwell and the General Assembly, the machines are not going to be purchased," said state Rep. Peter Ujvagi (D., Toledo), of the Joint Committee on Ballot Security. "I don't understand why the secretary of state on the one hand keeps talking about wanting to cooperate on the issues of the equipment and ballot security, and on the other hand is continuously trying to push forward his decisions in the middle of a process."

Blackwell spokesman Carlo LoParo said his boss was within his rights. "We've done a very thorough and comprehensive election reform preparation process, and for Mr. Ujvagi to step in at the 11th hour is perfectly within his prerogorative, and we are happy to answer all his questions, but to deny the secretary of state his constitutional authority as the state's chief elections officer simply because he's confused with the process is a little unreasonable," he said.

"Nearly 50 million voters across the country currently vote on some form of electronic voting device," he said, including six Ohio counties.

Republican Bernadette Noe, Lucas County elections board chief, said she has asked board director Paula Hicks-Hudson and deputy Director Joe Kidd to open talks with Diebold about leasing in case the feud in Columbus drags on and the county is without new machines.

Contact Fritz Wenzel at:

fritz@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.



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