COLUMBUS - Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell took the option of computerized touch-screen voting machines off the table yesterday and ordered all counties to deploy optical-scan devices using paper ballots by the November election.
"We have a tight election reform deployment schedule, too few allocated federal and state dollars, and not one electronic voting device certified under Ohio's standards and rules," he said.
It's the same position he threatened to take a year ago when lawmakers first assailed his decision to set a deadline for counties to select from a menu of voting machines. Eventually, the General Assembly mandated that any electronic device be equipped with a paper backup system for recount purposes.
Although optical-scan devices, which use paper ballots read electronically, meet her paper-backup requirement, Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) questioned Mr. Blackwell's rush to judgment.
The federal Help America Vote Act does not require full compliance until 2006.
"An auditable machine is absolutely critical," she said. "However, he needs to allow the process to happen so everyone will have a voice, for everyone to make this decision. I feel the process he used to make his decision is flawed."
Blackwell spokesman Carlo LoParo said the federal government is expected to appropriate $132 million of the $161 million originally promised under the Help America Vote Act .
He added that the overwhelming increase in voter registration during the recent presidential election will also require the purchase of more machines than originally planned.
Mr. Blackwell's chief goal was to eliminate punch-card ballots still in use in 69 of Ohio's 88 counties.
But the order to convert to optical-scan devices also applies to the six counties, none of them in northwest Ohio, that have been using touch-screen voting machines for years.
In addition to Lucas, 13 counties already use optical-scan devices, including Ottawa, Sandusky, Erie, Hancock, and Allen in northwest Ohio.
Most county boards of election had already voiced preference for touch-screen voting, but the County Commissioners Association of Ohio cited the potential price tag when backing Mr. Blackwell's decision.
"It appears that the proposal to use optical-scan voting is the only way Ohio can comply with federal law without counties being required to pay for part of the cost for installing new voting devices," said Executive Director Larry Long.
The decision came as a surprise to Bernadette Noe, outgoing chairman of the Lucas County Republican Party and county board of elections.
The county paid more than $300,000 to lease optical-scan machines for the Nov. 2 election, but did so with the understanding it would eventually replace them with touch-screen machines with federal dollars.
"Having lived through the last election, I have mixed emotions," said Ms. Noe.
"On one hand, the amount of paper required to run a presidential election [with optical scan] was staggering. The storing of the ballots was quite a task," she said.
"But after we had so much question about the results of this last election, I felt 100 percent confident, because we had the paper trail, that we were able to produce an accurate recount," she said.
"I don't think this is a bad decision," she said.
The decision was criticized by advocates for the blind, who prefer touch-screen machines that come equipped with audio headphones.
"If they want to go by the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law, they can do his plan," said Eric Duffy, director of field operations for the National Federation for the Blind of Ohio.
Federal law does require at least one handicapped-accessible voting machine in each polling place by 2006.
For now, only touch-screen machines meet that requirement.
The state already had contracts in place with two vendors to supply optical-scan devices for the few counties that requested them. Diebold Election Systems' offering costs $4,572 per machine.
Election Systems and Software's product costs $5,499. Mr. LoParo said counties will have until Feb. 9 to make their selection.
Diebold spokesman Mark Jacobsen said the company could have met all of the state's requirements within the established timetable.
"We're surprised he decided to go down this path by not using the newest technology, especially when you look at how touch-screen machines performed in the field in Georgia for the last election," Mr. Jacobsen said. "It was pretty impressive."
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