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Published: Friday, 12/10/2004

Wood County to scale back vote-machine purchases

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

BOWLING GREEN - With money tight for 2005, Wood County commissioners said yesterday they would likely appropriate less than half of the $450,000 the board of elections has requested to buy additional touch-screen voting machines.

Local elections official say the state has committed about $1,134,000 in federal funds to Wood County for the purchase of 378 machines, but they feel the county would need at least 150 extra machines to keep lines down at the polls on election day.

The board had made the same request last year, but the commissioners did not fund it. The board's entire budget last year was $560,550.

"We do this with the same intent or caveat, which is that our board feels the punch-card system has worked well in Wood County and has served the voters on election day in an efficient and accurate manner," said Terry Burton, director of the elections board.

All counties have been ordered to stop using punch-card voting systems by 2006 - much to local officials' dismay.

"It's frustrating. No one wants to stand up for the taxpayers on this," said Commissioner Tim Brown, who said Wood County has not had a problem with punch-card voting.

Mr. Burton said the state figured the number of voting machines per county based on 200 voters per unit. He said Wood County would like to have one unit per 100 voters.

Some proponents of touch-screen voting contend it is faster, but deputy elections director Deborah Hazard said she doesn't agree. Wood County piloted touch-screen voting machines during a special election in 1999 and found it took just as long for voters to read the ballot and cast their vote.

"You're touching a screen as opposed to punching a hole," she said.

Commissioners reminded elections officials that they are trying to cut $3 million out of the 2005 budget, so granting the $450,000 request for new voting equipment just isn't possible.

Commissioner Jim Carter said they might be able to phase in the purchase over two or three years.

Mr. Burton said the board hopes to have the new voting equipment operating by the August, 2005, special election, when it can do a test run during "a small, manageable election with a limited number of precincts."

"Our goal is to put on a good election and keep the public support which we've enjoyed for some time now," Ms. Hazard said. She added that unlike most counties, the Wood County elections board is not asking commissioners for extra dollars to get it through 2004.

The board had thought it would need about $50,000 to pay for the extra manpower needed for the November election, but it has been able to erase that shortfall, Ms. Hazard said, by releasing temporary employees sooner than anticipated and by delaying some equipment purchases planned for this year. About half of the elections staff also agreed to take compensatory time rather than overtime pay for extra hours worked in recent weeks, she said.

The elections board will conducti a recount of the presidential vote on Monday, Ms. Hazard said, and if it is forced to hand-count all 63,343 ballots cast for president in Wood County, it will have additional personnel costs.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-353-5972.



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