Sunday, November 12, 2000

Ohio also has trouble with punch-card ballots

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The 19,000 Palm Beach County, Fla., voters who believe they marked their ballots wrong or voted for two candidates have some counterparts here in Hamilton County.

        But, unlike in Florida, where some voters complain the ballots were confusing, the 2,736 Hamilton County residents who voted twice in the presidential race are probably blissfully unaware that their ballots for presi dent didn't count.

        Those Hamilton County voters simply made a mistake.

        That, say election officials here, is just the way it goes in a system where most voters vote by punching holes in a card. Some people punch too many holes in some races and their votes in those races don't count.

        “There are no perfect systems for voting,” said Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, the state's chief elections officer. “You can't keep ditching good systems because they are not perfect.”

        Elections in the United States are state matters; and many states, such as Ohio, leave it up to each county as to what kind of voting system they buy.

        “There are as many vendors (of voting systems) in Ohio as there are voters in some counties,” Mr. Blackwell said.

        About three-fourths of the 4.7 million Ohioans who went to the polls Tuesday voted on the same kind of punch cards used in Palm Beach County.

        Seventy of Ohio's 88 counties use punch-card systems; among them, Hamilton, Butler and Warren counties. But Ohio elections officials say it is very rare in punch-card counties for candidates to be arranged over two pages of the voting book in the “butterfly” fashion that may have confused Florida voters.

        In Ohio, candidates for one office are almost always listed on the same page, with holes directly to the right of the candidates' names.

        In five Ohio counties — including Franklin County, where Columbus is located - an electronic “touch pad” method is used, similar to one used statewide in Kentucky.

        In Clermont County and 10 other Ohio counties, voters blacken a box next to the candidate's name. Ballots are read by an optical scanner.

        In urban Lucas and rural Hardin counties, voters use old-fashioned voting machines with levers. Electronic voting machines are the newest incarnations of those machines.

        The electronic versions, such as those used in Kentucky, tally the votes onto a cassette tape. Votes are counted much more quickly and accurately than the old lever machines, which required poll workers to read the number of votes for each candidate or issue and write them down on a separate piece of paper.

        Bill Aylor, Kenton County clerk, said the electronic machines are much better, but there still can be problems.

        “It's still a piece of machinery that can break down,” he said.

        “I had four machines in this election that wouldn't power up because the printers were busted. And if the machine breaks down, you're just sitting there.”

        The electronic machines eliminate the need for a recount.

        “It's playing the same tape in a VCR, it'll be the same movie every time,” Mr. Aylor said.

        Herb Asher, an Ohio State University political scientist, said the voting method used the most in Ohio - punch cards - is the least reliable.

        “With the punch cards there are just too many things that can go wrong,” he said. “The little shads don't pop off the back. They go through the readers wrong. All kinds of things can happen,” he said.

        “Over-votes,” where a voter votes for too many candidates in a race, are almost impossible with a touch-pad system or the lever system, Mr. Asher said.

        With the old lever machines, a voter couldn't pull down a lever for two candidates - once one was pulled down, the others locked in place. And electronic touch pads record a vote in a race as soon as the space by a candidate's name is touched; it won't accept a second choice.

        Tim Burke, chairman of the county board of elections, said Hamilton County uses punch cards because it is affordable and produces reliable results.

        “For the money, we've got a very good system,” he said.

        In Hamilton County, a recount is required in at least one race every year. During a recount, most of the ballots are counted by machine, and election workers count by hand a random sample of three percent of the county's precincts.

        In Hamilton County, the 2,736 voters who “over-voted” their ballots and lost their say in the presidential election Tuesday could have corrected their mistakes if they had caught it while in the voting booth.

        The front page of the ballot book tells voters they can ask poll workers for help if they have questions about the ballot and can request a new ballot if they make a mistake on the first one.

        Regardless of the system, there can be glitches.

        In Hamilton County last year, election officials had to track down a poll worker who had ballot boxes in his car and had stopped off at a bowling alley.

        In Warren County several years ago, water had soaked some ballots. Vote-counters ended up drying them in a microwave oven before running them through the card reader.

        “There are mistakes and there always will be,” Mr. Burke said. “There are mistakes because humans are involved.”

        Reporter Dan Klepal contributed to this story.

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