By Jeremy W. Steele
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Although Southwest Ohio counties haven't reported any problems with their voting equipment, election officials are preparing to spend millions to replace it.
That's because new federal election rules, approved after the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida, require all punch-card and lever systems be replaced with electronic election machines by the 2004 presidential election.
Even counties that use more advanced optical scan ballots - similar to fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests - might have to update equipment to meet the standards.
Butler, Warren and Hamilton counties all use punch-card ballots. Clermont County, which switched to optical-scan ballots in 1995, plans to purchase equipment to allow voters to check their ballots for errors by scanning them at polling locations.
"Probably the average person views this as a waste of money, but this is a federal bill," said Dan Bare, director of Clermont County's Board of Elections. "A federal bill is something we must comply with."
Ohio estimates it will cost more than $160 million to meet federal election standards. The project is being funded by federal and state money.
That has Warren County Commissioner Mike Kilburn peeved, especially because the federal government is running a deficit and state governments are struggling to balance their budgets.
Warren County officials say it will cost $2.2 million to replace more than 600 election machines across its 157 voting precincts.
"We don't need new voting machines in Warren County," Kilburn said. "As far as I know, our voting machines work."
Election officials say the changes are meant to prevent over-votes - when voters choose too many candidates in one race - and are not a reflection on how well elections have been run in Ohio.
"The punch card has worked well in Hamilton County," said Julie Stautberg, director of the county's Board of Elections. "There are over-votes, but we have not experienced the excessive amounts of hanging chads and pregnant chads and everything else out of 2000."
Hamilton County is looking to spend $9 million to purchase and maintain 2,770 new voting machines. The county began testing new electronic voting systems in fall 2002 local elections.
Warren County Board of Elections Director Susan Johnson said her county is looking into a touch-screen or push-button voting system - similar to an ATM. The systems would notify voters if they incorrectly fill out their ballot and allow them to fix the mistake.
Johnson said putting the system in place in time for the presidential election will be a "monumental" task. The new machines will have to be programmed for the election and election workers must be trained to use them.
"I don't know what the programming requirements are behind all the systems. Those are things we're trying to learn," Johnson said. "I think there's going to be a lot of extra work as far as the individual units."
The southwestern counties join the rest of Ohio in readying for an overhaul of election equipment. Five counties already use an electronic punch pad method and 10 use optical scan, according to the Ohio secretary of state's office.
Secretary of state spokesman Carlo LoParo said the state is waiting for federal funding to be approved. Ohio has set a Sept. 1 deadline for counties to choose an electronic voting method.
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