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Published: Monday, 5/17/2004

Bungled database is blamed for woes

BY FRITZ WENZEL
BLADE POLITICAL WRITER

It was like a Ginsu knife commercial, on steroids, gone bad.

"But wait. There's more!"

The Lucas County Board of Elections encountered such a long string of glitches in the run-up to and the aftermath of the March 2 primary election - always there seemed to be more bad news - that governing board chairman Paula Ross came to conclude the vote may have been sabotaged, perhaps by workers at the board office.

There were misprinted ballots. Misplaced ballots. Ballots counted twice. The offices of Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell and county Prosecutor Julia Bates are investigating the irregularities. Mr. Blackwell said he expects a final report on the probe this week.

But no matter the cause, the effect has been to discredit those in charge of the election, and to shake public confidence in the voting system, members of the elections board agreed.

Those officials now believe every problem with the March 2 primary can be traced to a single decision deemed so insignificant at the time that, records show, the elections board didn't even vote on it.

Former elections Director Joe Kidd and then-deputy Director Paula Hicks-Hudson made an administrative decision last fall to handle in-house the develop-

ment of a computer database for the primary election that would work with the electronic optical-scan voting machines leased from Diebold Elections Systems, Ms. Hicks-Hudson said.

But the database didn't work.

Interviews with the four board members showed then-board Chairman Paula Ross was the only member who knew the decision had been made or realized its importance. The two Republicans on the board - Bernadette Noe and Sam Thurber - said they were unaware of the decision for months after it was made, learning of it only in the days before the primary.

Democrat Diane Brown said she did not realize Diebold was playing only an arms-length advisory role, fielding telephone queries and an occasional in-person inspection of the board's work.

"We didn't know about it until the ballot errors were discovered right before the election," Ms. Noe said. "It wasn't explained to me that there was an alternative. It wasn't clear to me that Diebold was available to do this work."

"It was errors in that [database] that led to every problem we had in the primary," Ms. Ross said. "I think that the internal [elections board] people have the capacity - we must have internal people with the capacity - to do these jobs. We may have moved too quickly."

Mr. Kidd, a Republican, and Larry Loutzenhiser, a Democrat elections supervisor, assumed the responsibility to build the computer database that links candidates and issues on the ballot with the precincts in which those items are to appear. Because it was the even-year primary, when each precinct required two ballots because each had a different race for Republican and Democratic precinct committeeman seats, the election was one of the most complicated the board has seen.

Mr. Loutzenhiser said Mr. Kidd was present for part, but not all, of the time that database work was under way. Earlier this month, Mr. Kidd was terminated for failing to perform his assigned duties.

Ms. Hicks-Hudson, who was named elections director after the primary, said the project was too much for the board to handle.

"I think we were too ambitious," she said. "We had the two-day training in the summer. We had another guy come in from Diebold that helped Larry create this precinct and database stuff, but we didn't know enough about reports [in the Diebold software program] that we could use to check our work.

"We knew enough to be dangerous, I think."

The thinking, Ms. Hicks-Hudson said, was that the local elections staff should have the experience of building the database for an election using the new electronic voting equipment at least once before the November vote.

"For me, the question was voter confidence. We need to know how to do it in prepartion for the presidential election. I personally wasn't going to count on Diebold having people here to hold our hands," Ms. Hicks-Hudson said. "I don't want to rely on them."

Ironically, she said, the decision instead led to an erosion of voter confidence in the local elections process.

Mistakes built into the database caused the board to print and distribute flawed absentee ballots that could not be read by optical-scan vote counters. Some were simply formatted improperly, while others had candidates running in the wrong precincts. By the time the mistakes were discovered, thousands of ballots had been sent out to voters, who filled them out and mailed them back to the board.

Some absentee voters who had unknowingly received and completed defective ballots later received replacement ballots in the mail.

Eighty-one of those people cast their replacement ballots, and in the end, had both of their first and second ballots counted, elections workers acknowledged.

In the process of counting ballots on Election Day, the optical-scan machines rejected some of the defective ballots, and 300 of those were set aside to be counted separately at the end of the day.

Instead, they wound up forgotten in a closet for more than five weeks before workers discovered and finally tallied them.

"It's not that we're incompetent, it's that we were too eager," insisted Ms. Hicks-Hudson.

Mr. Thurber, an electrical engineer who writes computer programs similar to those that instruct electronic voting machines, said it was folly for the board to attempt to take the lead role in building the database.

"I was never made aware that they were going to construct that on their own, and I would have been very hesitant had someone made that clear to me," he said. "I never had Joe or Paula Hicks-Hudson come to me and say, 'Hey, we're going to do this. It is going to be the first time we're doing it. We're going to do it on our own.'‚óŹ"

"I would have strongly urged not doing it. That's not the way to learn software," he said.

Ms. Noe, who since the election has replaced Ms. Ross as chairman of the elections board, said major changes are on the way.

"We are on the cusp of hiring an information systems manager," she said, adding that Diebold probably will be asked to work more closely with the county for the November election.

"I want to look and see what they can do for us, because we have all these personnel situations in a state of flux."

She said the hiring last week of lawyer Jill Kelly as a replacement for Mr. Kidd also should help get control of day-to-day management of the elections office.

But as the elections board takes affirmative steps to prevent future problems, uncertainty stemming from the March 2 primary still hangs overhead.

Secretary of State Blackwell, at an appearance in Toledo last week, said he was "extremely frustrated with the apparent dysfunction of the operation of the Lucas County Board of Elections. The people of Lucas County deserve better, and we are going to do everything within our power to turn that around."

Carlo LoParo, a Blackwell spokesman, has said that could include the removal of members of the elections board.

Contact Fritz Wenzel at:

fritz@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.



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