Touch-screens the primary issue

Jackie Mantey

Forget plastic — paper or touch-screen is the new question.

Tensions are high statewide for election officials as they prepare for the March 4 primary and struggle to comply with Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner’s recommendations to scrap Diebold touch-screen voting machines for optical scanners with paper ballots.

Brunner’s push for change came after the December release of an independent study called the Evaluation and Validation of Election-Related Equipment, Standards and Testing. The report, known as EVEREST, suggested touch-screen machines were more likely to be tampered with.

“Based on the EVEREST review, there are vulnerabilities in all the voting machines,” Brunner spokesperson Patrick Galloway said. “These machines are using 1980s technology and have serious security flaws.”

Left in the study’s wake is uncertainty surrounding a primary that is a little more than a month away. But in a state that was essential for the 2004 presidential race between John Kerry and George W. Bush, Galloway said ensuring voters’ trust in the system is imperative, no matter the time crunch.

Portage County has yet to be given a directive to make the swap, but Brunner has hopes to switch all the counties to optical-scan systems by November (think voting on paper and then having your vote scanned to record your picks).

Galloway said because a large number of voters are expected to show up for the November election, changes need to be made to ensure the systems don’t crash.

“Touch-screens have never been tested in an election of this magnitude,” he said.

The Portage County Elections Board Director Lois Enlow, director of the Portage County Elections Board, said voters can expect to see the touch-screen systems when they vote in the primary, including the option of voting with a paper ballot — a service that’s long been a part of the voting line up in the county but is seldom used, she said.

As for the election in November, Enlow said it’s looking less and less like Brunner will get her wish.

Last Tuesday, the Ohio Association of Election Officials voted unanimously for counties to decide for themselves what voting systems to use, going against the recommendations of Brunner, reported The Associated Press. This leaves Brunner with the drastic options of decertifying the touch-screen machines or removing board members of counties that go against her, according to the AP.

Taking it to court

Newspapers statewide have been reporting on the deficiencies of the touch-screen voting system. Enlow attributes the negative news overage of the voting system to a trickle down effect from the infighting in Cuyahoga County, Portage County’s neighbor to the northwest.

Brunner is requiring Cuyahoga, the largest county in the state, to have the optical scan system in place for the March 4 primary. After a decisive vote last month, Cuyahoga is implementing a central count optical scan system. This means that paper ballots are shipped hot off the hands of voters to another location to be read by the scanning machines.

The county is now facing resistance from The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit last Thursday fighting this decision.

It argues that because the system doesn’t allow sufficient time for voters to correct ballot errors or given adequate notification of errors before they are counted, voters’ constitutional rights are violated and could create a surge of overvotes, which will have to be thrown out.

“It doesn’t make sense if you want all votes to count,” said Mike Brickner, spokesperson of the ACLU of Ohio. “Paper or electronic — it has to be something that gives voters a chance to verify their decisions.”

For Cuyahoga, it’s a race to the March 4 finish line to see what happens — a race of confusion that Gallaway said is unnecessary.

“We tried to get the EVEREST study approved in the summer, but we couldn’t make the findings available to the public until December 14,” he said. “The (Cuyahoga) board is going full-speed ahead, and the lawsuit lacks merit. It’s a real questionable issue on timing as to why they would wait that long to submit a lawsuit. It doesn’t serve any good. Ballots are already being ordered.”

As for the rest of Ohio, Galloway said Brunner is taking officials’ comments and concerns into account, but they can still expect a push for a change.

“Secretary Brunner really has the interest of voters at heart,” he said. “We get e-mails, calls and concerns from voters, and we hope we make it best for the voting public. It’s funny because we hear one thing from elections officials, and the voters give us another response.”

Trusting the system

The daily back and forth between which voting machines will be used in November means headaches for elections officials while waiting in voting machine limbo.

“We don’t want to be switched at all,” said Norman Sandvoss, a member of the Portage County Board of Elections, adding that Portage switched to the touch-screen systems after punch card ballots proved unreliable.

“Touch screens are the most advanced system, and we feel like optical scans are a step backward,” he said. “We went to it as early as possible so we could get poll workers trained. We’ve got a system that runs well. It’s not broke, so we don’t need to fix it a second time.”

Portage is one of 57 counties in Ohio that records votes with touch-screen systems. Despite the issues at hand, Enlow said Portage County voters “are very comfortable with the way they vote” and should remain so for the upcoming elections.

“It’s equipment for crying out loud. There’s going to be issues,” she said. “But voters need to trust their elections officials. We haven’t had problems in the past, and security is already pretty tight here. There is very limited access to these machines.”

Sandvoss agreed that voters are “in good hands” and that Brunner’s response is a “knee-jerk reaction.”

More pressing, however, is the fact that Portage County bought around 650 of the touch-screen voting machines two years ago, costing the county around $354,000 to supplement $1.5 million of federal funds, Enlow said.

“Obviously, we have big bucks in this thing,” she said, adding that while she doesn’t know what it would cost to make the switch to optical scanners. “It’s certainly not something the county is prepared for.”

Contact public affairs reporter Jackie Mantey at [email protected].