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Lucas County eyes touch-screen voting

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Lucas County election officials want touch-screen devices that provide receipts.

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The Lucas County Board of Elections decided yesterday to buy new voting equipment from Diebold Election Systems of McKinney, Texas.

Just what type of machines the county will get is unknown.

The four board members - two Democrats and two Republicans - agreed unanimously that they would prefer to buy touch-screen electronic machines that will provide voters with paper receipts.

But Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell has not offered that choice. Instead, he has called for all 88 counties to buy optical-scan voting machines, which use paper ballots.

"We have a general consensus that this [touch screen] technology is the technology of the future," said board member Paula Ross, a Democrat.

"We would rather buy that than something that will be obsolete before the life of the contract is up," as will likely be the case with the optical-scan equipment, she said. Significant ongoing costs are also associated with optical-scan systems, she added, including expenses for ballot paper and printing, storage, and training.

Under the federal Help America Vote Act, the state and federal governments will pay for a package of optical-scan machines and some touch-screen machines to aid blind voters, but the county will then have to pay future costs to buy paper ballots and have them printed. If the county outfits its 211 voting locations entirely with touch-screen units, it will avoid future paper and printing costs but will have to make up the difference between the $3 million the state and federal governments are offering, and the $5.3 million price tag for 1,525 touch screens - about one machine for every 200 registered voters.

The federal election-reform bill requires touch-screen machines for visually impaired voters so that they can cast ballots without assistance. Blind voters use touch-screen machines with a keypad system and earphones.

Lucas County spent $161,000 just to print ballots for the November election. That included reprinting of some ballots to accommodate last-minute changes to the ballot. Board member Bernadette Noe, a Republican, said most of that expense could have been avoided had the county been using touch-screen equipment. Local elections officials agreed that the cost and frustration of both optical-scan and touch-screen machinery in its precincts would make elections unnecessarily complicated for elections workers and for voters, while using only touch screens would simplify the process.

"If the counties do find the money to make up the difference, and the [touch-screen] systems are qualified, then that's certainly something to discuss," said Carlo LoParo, spokesman for Mr. Blackwell. "But as of now, there are no [touch-screen] systems that are qualified" for use in Ohio elections.

Robert Diekmann of Diebold said his firm will have a touch-screen machine ready to undergo state testing as soon as the standards are finalized. The General Assembly is expected to adopt standards for the touch-screen equipment next month, Mr. LoParo confirmed.

Lucas County was one of 83 elections boards to choose a vendor for voting machines by yesterday's deadline, Mr. LoParo said. The five other counties - Cuyahoga, Franklin, Hamilton, Lake, and Portage - did not choose a vendor in protest of the Blackwell directive. Franklin and Lake counties already had bought touch-screen machines and did not want to move to the paper-based optical-scan system, Mr. LoParo said.

Ohio Attorney General James Petro issued an opinion Tuesday that Mr. Blackwell could not compel counties to limit their choices. Portage County won a temporary injunction in county court yesterday to protect it from having to meet the Blackwell directive.

Peter Gerken, a Democratic county commissioner, told the county elections board yesterday that he believed the county could support the board's action and promised the board at its meeting yesterday that he would work on the project.

"We will bring our resources to it," he said. "I think the board of commissioners would take this as one of our highest priority activities, starting tomorrow."

Maggie Thurber, a Republican county commissioner, said she supports the board's decision.

"I trust the four members of the board to make a good decision," she said. "I know that that is going to require that we put more money in than what was originally planned under HAVA, and the county has been preparing for that, so I continue to support it."

She said the board of commissioners set aside $1.5 million several years ago to buy new voting machines. Some of that money was spent to lease equipment for the November election last year, but she said $1.1 million remains in the fund.

Contact Fritz Wenzel at:

fritz@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.

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