Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Touch-screen voting coming to Ohio

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

They've infiltrated the banking system, grocery stores and the workplace, and now they're going to change the way you vote: Electronic screens that operate with a touch could replace punch-card ballots across Ohio by next year's presidential election.

The county is evaluating this and other touch-screen voting machines.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
| ZOOM |
The Help America Vote Act, signed by President Bush in October, is providing the impetus and $3.8 billion to make voting easier nationwide.

Punch-card voting - made infamous by Florida's disputed presidential election in 2000 - must be replaced by November 2004 with methods that tell voters if they've made an error and give them a chance to fix it.

"National studies show there's a higher proportion of error with punch-card balloting than other methods of voting," said Dana Walch, director of elections for the Ohio Secretary of State's office.

Right now, 69 of Ohio's 88 counties - including Hamilton, Butler and Warren - use punch-cards, while only six have electronic voting, Mr. Walch said.

Kentucky is further ahead; Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties have replaced punch-cards with new technology. However, Campbell Clerk Jack Snodgrass said updates are needed to allow the blind and the hearing-impaired to cast their ballots without assistance - another requirement of the Help America Vote Act.

The new voting systems don't have to be touch-screen-based, but that's the direction Hamilton and many other Ohio counties are leaning.

Hamilton - with more than three times as many precincts as any neighboring county - has begun testing touch-screen voting with a view to start buying $15 million worth of the machines by the end of the year. The next tryout will come Feb. 4, during special elections in Norwood, St. Bernard and Elmwood Place.

"This is a step toward finding out the similarities and differences in machines that are out there," said Julie Stautberg, director of the Hamilton County Board of Elections. "Our goal is to make the decision this year so we have some time next year to work with poll workers and voters."

Still, Mount Healthy resident Kathy Beiersdorfer, 54, is concerned that touch-screens will be hard for some people, especially the elderly, to learn to use. Ms. Beiersdorfer used the first system that Hamilton County tested, made by Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software, in August.

"You had to use a much firmer touch than I'm used to," she said. "The other thing is, if you have several different issues on the ballot, it's going to be confusing to people."

Butler and Warren counties also must switch from punch-card ballots. Butler plans to go out to bid for touch-screen machines in the next month, Board of Elections Director Robert Mosketti said, so that the county is ready to buy them when the check arrives.

Ohio will get about $150 million in federal money over three years to improve voting, Mr. Walch said, and the General Assembly has agreed to a required match of about $5.6 million. It will be a couple of months before the Secretary of State's office can tell individual counties how much money they will get, Mr. Walch said.

"We are going to make every effort possible to pay for this as much as possible with the federal money and the state match," he said.

Clermont has had optical scan voting - in which voters fill in circles with No. 2 pencils - for a decade. However, the county does not have scanners at each precinct, so voters can't see if they've picked too many candidates or skipped some races.

Board of Elections Director Danny Bare is hoping to find out this week how many scanners he must buy and how much money he will get.

E-mail candrews@enquirer.com

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