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Published: Wednesday, 10/10/2001

Consensus eludes vote-reform panel

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - For a panel that spends its time talking about the importance of a vote, the Ohio Election System Study Committee can't seem to cast one.

More than a week after missing its legislative deadline, the committee yesterday continued to fight over whether Ohio's system of voting, heavy on the punch-card ballots that got Florida into trouble in November, is broken.

Keith Cunningham, Allen County election director, accused legislative leaders of trying to “hijack” the process to fashion a report that won't require them to make tough decisions or open the state's wallet.

There have been estimates that replacing voting machines across the state could cost as much as $70 million at a time when the General Assembly is talking about cuts to address a $600 million hole in its budget this year.

“If a failure should occur in one of the counties, it's not going to be a senator or the secretary of state who will lose his job,” said Mr. Cunningham. “It's going to be an election official.”

He made the comments after state Sen. Jeff Jacobson (R., Phillipsburg) pushed an amendment stripping the report of any mandate that counties upgrade their voting machines no later than 2006.

“I do not believe we've seen persuasive, convincing evidence that punch-card systems are fundamentally flawed as the original report suggests,” he said.

The committee walked into yesterday's meeting with a report heavily critical of punch-card voting, although it would not have mandated doing away with them outright.

Instead, it called for all systems of voting in Ohio's 88 counties to meet three criteria within five years:

  • Allow voters to check for errors such as the “overvoting” and “undervoting” on ballots in Florida before turning them in.

  • Require votes to be counted at the precinct level as a means of speeding up the tabulation process.

  • Require a paper trail through which a vote count can later be audited.

    It generally is considered financially inefficient to convert a punch-card system to meet these criteria.

    The report would appear to encourage a move toward electronic touch-pad voting or optical-scan devices that tabulate markings on paper ballots.

    “The conclusion of elected professionals across the country and those in Ohio is these three characteristics are essential to providing equal protection under the law to all voters who properly cast a ballot,” said Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, the state's chief election officer and chairman of the committee.

    The Ohio Association for Election Officials has endorsed the draft report's recommendations. The organization's president, Antoinette Szuch, Lucas County election director, said she believes the lever machine system used in Lucas meets the criteria.

    The Republican-dominated committee - consisting of Mr. Blackwell, state senators and representatives, county officials, and members of the general public - plans to try again, although Mr. Jacobson expressed doubt it will reach consensus on the punch-card issue.



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