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Published: Thursday, 1/31/2008

March 4 primary results face delay as elections board cites paper-ballot directive

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER

On the night of March 4, the eyes of the nation will be trained on Ohio's primary election.

Because of a requirement that paper ballots be offered to voters as an alternative to the touch-screen machines, those eyes could be red and bleary, or closed in sleep, by the time the votes are counted.

The secretary of state's requirement that paper ballots be made available for voters who are nervous about voter machine security could add hours to the time needed to count votes in Ohio's 88 counties.

An announcement of town hall meetings to explain the voting changes issued yesterday by the Lucas County Board of Elections warned that "election results will be significantly delayed this election" and urged voters to consider using absentee balloting.

Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner told The Blade a one or two-hour delay would not be unexpected. That would push completion of the vote count to past midnight and possibly into the early morning.

The vote-counting in Florida's closely watched Republican primary Tuesday was 95 percent complete by 11:30 p.m.

When Ohio and Texas hold primaries March 4, the races for the Democratic and Republican nominees for President could still be in doubt, which would focus intense interest on the Ohio and Texas results.

To head off excessive delays, Ms. Brunner has introduced legislation she hopes the General Assembly will pass quickly that would allow elections boards to collect paper ballots cast as of 3 p.m. on election day and bring them to the board office to be readied for counting.

"If we can get that passed - and we haven't encountered opposition to it yet - that would alleviate some of those concerns because they would be able to start processing those ballots" before the close of polling places at 7:30, Ms. Brunner said.

She also has bowed to a request from elections directors that poll workers be required to offer paper ballots only when voters ask for them.

On Jan. 2, Ms. Brunner ordered that all elections boards make paper "optical scan" ballots available for voters who are worried that their votes won't be counted correctly.

She recommended elections boards make available enough paper ballots to accommodate 10 percent of the vote in the previous presidential election.

Mrs. Brunner said concerns were raised by the report she commissioned last year that found vote machine failures in Cuyahoga County and the potential for tampering with touch-screen machines.

Jill Kelly, director of the Lucas County Board of Elections, said preparing and scanning 5,000 paper ballots - about 10 percent of the votes cast in the last presidential primary - would take four to five hours with existing machines. "We will work like the Keebler elves that night to get it done as quickly as we can," she said.

She said once the boxes of paper ballots are opened, any ballots that are folded or incorrectly marked would have to be "remade" so they can be scanned. That means a new ballot would have to be filled in, with observers from both political parties watching carefully to make sure the voter's intent is followed.

In Lucas County's last countywide election on Nov. 6, the earliest votes were reported at 8:54 p.m. and the last votes at 11:06 p.m.

The board is urging the public to avail itself of absentee voting, which is legal for anyone who wants to use it. Voters must call, write, or visit - in person or online - for an application to vote absentee.

As a precaution, the board of elections has ordered 50,025 blank paper ballots, at a cost of $17,686, to distribute around Lucas County's 208 polling locations. The number equates to 40 percent of the 2004 presidential primary vote.

Still up in the air is whether Ms. Brunner will require counties to get rid of their touch-screen machines and replace them with optical scanners for the November general election.

Contact Tom Troy at: tomtroy@theblade.com or 419-724-6058.



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