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Ohio's high court enters voting-machine dispute

COLUMBUS - The Ohio Supreme Court yesterday waded into the battle between Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell and a voting-machine manufacturer that claims Mr. Blackwell's actions have cost it millions of dollars.

At Mr. Blackwell's request, the high court agreed to consider whether a lawsuit filed in Franklin County Common Pleas Court by Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software should be moved to the Ohio Court of Claims, which usually handles monetary claims against state officials.

An agreement with Franklin County Judge Dale Crawford has given the 32 counties that joined the ES&S suit until Sept. 15 to decide which voting machines they want and has given manufacturers until Nov. 1 to win certification for computerized touch-screen voting devices they want to sell.

The state's goal is to have 49 of Ohio's 88 counties using new machines in the Nov. 8 general election, using funds under the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002.

Most of the counties that plan to be up and running with new systems this year, including Lucas, plan to buy a touch-screen device manufactured by Texas-based Diebold Inc. It's the only device certified to meet the new legislative mandate that electronic machines come equipped with paper backup systems.

ES&S, and later Texas-based Hart Intercivic, claimed its touch-screen devices, which have yet to be certified under the new standard, have been shut out of the Ohio market.

Both have certified optical scan devices that employ paper ballots, but most counties have indicated a preference for touch screens.

"ES&S chose to enter into the process with litigation rather then spend its time developing the technology, which would make good business sense," said Carlo LoParo, a spokesman for the secretary of state.

Mr. Blackwell's office contends settlement negotiations with Hart and the counties appear promising but claims ES&S to be focused on money and not a resolution to the deadline issues.

"Why are they afraid to have the discovery process go forward?" asked Jill Friedman, spokesman for ES&S.

"The fact that the secretary of state's office would try to remove [Judge Crawford] from this case is just another example of how hard they will work to eliminate choice from Ohio's voting system selection process."

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