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Published: Thursday, 11/10/2005

State plans to investigate voting chaos; Tuesday's problems are latest for Lucas County

BY CHRISTOPHER D. KIRKPATRICK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Carlo LoParo, spokesman for the secretary of state's office, said the poor performance Tuesday was "frustrating" because of previous strides made, including a glitch-free Sept. 13 primary.

"It's an all too familiar process at the Lucas County Board of Elections. We'll begin by interviewing staff and reviewing their preparation plans," he said of the coming investigation.

The board of elections has been criticized by Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, who in April said all four board members should resign or he would fire them because of problems with the November, 2004, presidential election.

The members resigned, and the Lucas County board has been under an administrative watch ever since. Four new members were appointed by local Democratic and Republican party officials to continue overseeing elections and the county elections office.

In April, Mr. Blackwell made his threat of firings after releasing an investigative report and other supporting documents that detailed problems with day-to-day management of the board and with management of the November, 2004, election, which included problems with ballot security.

Tuesday's vote was the first full Lucas County ballot to use the controversial Diebold touch-screen voting machines, which are one type of a newer voting technology being phased in across the state. The phase-in is part of Congress' response to the Florida ballot scandal of the 2000 presidential election. During that election, punch-card ballots were blamed for inaccurate voting totals. Congress passed a law requiring newer technology free of "hanging chads" in place by the 2006 federal election.

On Tuesday, former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner trounced incumbent Jack Ford 68 percent to 32 percent, or 47,352 to 29,169 votes, in an election marred by technical issues and the late returns.

WilliAnn Moore WilliAnn Moore
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WilliAnn Moore, the president of the Toledo branch of the NAACP, said she plans to file a complaint with Mr. Blackwell about Tuesday's elections, claiming black-majority polling places were not properly run.

"I've talked to the [Lucas County] board of elections in the past, but they just can't seem to get their act together," she said. "I don't care about who won. The NAACP is nonpartisan. I take people to the polls and hope they vote. This election was too sloppy."

Her complaints were echoed by City Councilman Michael Ashford.

Wood County officials also had some problems with the new technology. Results were not totaled for all precincts there until about 6:30 a.m. - the latest elections officials could recall.

Deputy Director Debbie Hazard said votes from five polling locations were counted by hand because workers accidentally "set an option [on the five machines] that prevented the results from being transported onto the memory card."

"When you make a change like this, it's very stressful," she said.

Optical scanners used by the Sandusky County Board of Elections refused to accept hundreds of ballots because of a printing error, forcing workers to hand-count some of them. The board didn't finish compiling results until 4 a.m. yesterday.

Dayton's Montgomery County was the second worst in the state, with totals not available until after 7 a.m., Mr. LoParo said. Cleveland's Cuyahoga County, which is one of the areas still using punch-cards, was finished by 3:45 a.m., he said.

In Lucas County yesterday, the board of elections office was closed to the public. Greeting the public was a pile of printed vote totals for the races. Unavailable from the darkened board office were voter turnout information, ward totals, and other more specific data that give body and face to an election and illuminate the motives of the electorate.

Many interviewed yesterday said poor planning and use of a "rover" system for collecting the Diebold memory cartridges - which hold each machine's vote totals - were the major problems.

A rover would have five polling places to visit on a circuit to collect the touch screen machine cartridges. If one polling place was having technical difficulties, the other four would suffer too, and the vote counting downtown delayed.

Once collected, the memory cartridges were delivered downtown and read by tabulator machines at the board of elections office on the third floor of One Government Center.

But the scene at midnight was one of chaos on the third floor, with the special red and green bags holding memory cartridges and printed tapes of votes lining the hallways, piled on the floor in the elections office, and dumped in a large cart sitting unattended near the elevators.

Elections Director Jill Kelly - who was off yesterday and couldn't be reached - said on election night that "the community" had not responded to her requests for enough paid volunteers to help run the elections and that some had called off sick at the last moment, causing a labor shortage.

Patrick Kriner, one of the newly appointed Republican board of elections members and a past Lucas County Republican Party chairman, said a space issue in the board's offices also contributed, allowing for only six tabulation machines.

"It was clearly frustrating from my position because we put down a plan we thought was effective, not only in getting an accurate count but one that was more timely. Clearly that didn't happen," he said

City Councilman Rob Ludeman worked as a volunteer rover because of the labor shortage, he said.

"For the most part, the [voting] system worked great. The public loved the touch screen. It was fast and easy," he said. "[But] if [as a rover] I have five polling places [to visit], then I can't bring material downtown until I have all five locations closed."

Under the rover system, one slow polling station makes all five late, he said. "[But] if rovers had to bring just the memory card, we would have had them in by 9 p.m.," he said.

County Commissioner Pete Gerken said the county only pays the bills and that the board of elections - with general oversight from the secretary of state - makes its own decisions.

He said he didn't think resignations would be appropriate because there is a learning curve with new technology. He also said Lucas County needs to fix its own problems and that Mr. Blackwell's house has not always been in order when it comes to elections.

"We need to do better the next time," he said. "We want to make sure they have a plan for continuous improvement."

Blade staff writers Jennifer Feehan and Steve Murphy contributed to this report

Contact Christopher D. Kirkpatrick

at: ckirkpatrick@theblade.com

or 419-724-6077.



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