Touch-screen voting machines appear to be on their way to Lucas County at no cost to county coffers.
That's a significant reversal of fortune for local elections and county officials who had braced themselves to pay as much as $2 million out of their own coffers to buy a new elections system.
"That's music to my ears,'' said Peter Gerken, a Democratic county commissioner. "It's good news for Lucas County voters. The touch screen probably serves all constituencies the best."
Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell announced a deal yesterday with three touch-screen voting machine companies to sell improved units for a lower price.
As a result, Lucas County will be able to buy enough machines to serve its 300,000 registered voters using only federal and state funds, said Carlo LoParo, spokesman for Mr. Blackwell.
"It's a blockbuster deal," Mr. LoParo said. "It's more machines, better machines, with the extra assurance of voter-verified paper audit trails, for a cheaper price," Mr. LoParo said.
The deal will allow for the purchase of one touch-screen machine for every 175 registered voters, or about three per precinct, Mr. LoParo said.
Under an earlier agreement between Mr. Blackwell and equipment makers, every 200 registered voters were to have shared a machine.
"We needed some closure on this issue,'' said Jill Kelly, director of the county elections board. "We are greatly, greatly relieved."
But the decision comes at a time when the county elections board is in shambles. There are no Republican members, and the two Democratic members are under pressure from Mr. Blackwell to resign.
A fresh decision on the machines will have to be made by May 24 by new board members, Mr. LoParo said. He predicted that a new board should be in place before that deadline.
"We'll work it out for the benefit of Lucas County voters," Mr. LoParo said.
The county plans to buy about 50 extra touch-screen machines, and it will have to pay for those units, Mr. LoParo said.
"Things break down. It's just good to have them," Ms. Kelly said.
The elections board decided earlier to purchase its touch-screen equipment from Diebold Election Systems of McKinney, Texas.
Those machines have received certification from the federal government and have passed an independent security review.
A final approval by the state Board of Voting Machine Examiners - the last regulatory hurdle to be jumped - is expected next week, Mr. LoParo said.
Lucas County has no permanent voting equipment and has been leasing its voting machines since early 2003. The county will use paper ballots in the upcoming May special election.
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