Central tally sites not planned

Some Cuyahoga County
election officials have balked at making the switch to paper ballots.

COLUMBUS (AP) — Changes are planned for Ohio voting procedures in the presidential election this November, but requiring precincts to send ballots to central locations before tallying them won’t be one of them, Ohio’s chief elections officer said Friday.

The boards will have enough on their hands in a statewide switch from touch-screen machines to machines that electronically scan paper ballots cast by voters, Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner said.

Currently, 57 of the state’s 88 counties use electronic touch screens to record votes, but Brunner said an independent study released last month found the touch-screen systems could be more susceptible to tampering. She wants the switch to the optical-scan systems by November in a state that was crucial in President Bush’s victory over Democrat John Kerry in 2004.

Making a second change this year — from counting votes at each precinct site to tallying several precincts’ ballots at central locations — could put too much of a burden on local elections officials already coping with other changes, Brunner told a statewide meeting of those officials on Thursday.

“What we started out with were recommendations,” Brunner said Friday. “As we discussed the recommendations with legislators and election officials, we looked at how much change would be advisable within one year.”

This year marks the first presidential election since Congress ordered states to get rid of punch cards that proved problematic in the 2000 election.

Though Brunner is not requiring counties statewide to count votes in central locations, she is sticking with her decision to require such a system in Cuyahoga County by the March 4 primary. Brunner has ordered that touch screens used in the county — Ohio’s largest — be replaced by the optical-scan system in time for the election.

The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday filed a lawsuit that argues the system to be put in place in Cuyahoga County violates voters’ constitutional rights because it doesn’t allow them to correct ballot errors before votes are counted. Some county election officials also have balked at making the switch.

Brunner should be commended for postponing the central-count plan, but should do away with it altogether, said Daniel Tokaji, an associate professor of law at Ohio State University and a specialist in election law. Counting the votes away from where they are cast will disenfranchise voters who have no chance to fix their ballots, he said.

“I certainly think it’s a favorable development that Secretary Brunner is backing away from the idea,” Tokaji said. “Hopefully, we’ve heard the end of that idea.”

Tokaji also believes Brunner is making changes too fast, especially those for the March primary in Cuyahoga County.

“I do think election officials are properly wary of too much change too quickly. Ultimately it can hurt voters,” he said. “I think they are really rolling the dice. ... I completely agree with the ACLU’s lawsuit.

Brunner’s planned switch to optical-scan machines would require legislation, because current law allows the option of touch screens, she said. Legislative leaders have told her that her office should draft legislation to be introduced in the Senate. Officials also must find the estimated $31 million to pay for the switch.

Recent changes in election law have originated in the Ohio House, but that chamber currently is debating Gov. Ted Strickland’s energy bill, and, soon, lawmakers will be focused on their own primaries.