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Problems plague new Ohio voting machines

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

CLEVELAND (AP) -- Ohio's first election without punch-card ballots was marred by a slew of problems with new voting machines, raising a crucial question: Can the state that decided the last presidential race get it together before November?

Election officials had trouble printing ballot receipts, finding lost votes and tabulating election results in Tuesday's primary. Some election workers were late or did not show up at all in Cleveland's Cuyahoga County, the state's largest. Others could not figure out how to turn on the machines.

"Ohio's quickly getting this reputation as most corrupt and maybe most incompetent," said Christine Link, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, which fielded dozens of complaints from voters.

Tuesday's primary was the first in which all 88 counties used either touch-screen machines or devices that scan ballots marked by voters.

Glitches were reported across the state, and a few local races remained undecided yesterday while counting continued. The number of outstanding votes was too small to affect races for governor, Congress and statewide offices.

Columbus lawyer Cliff Arnebeck, who handles voting-rights cases, said many of the problems were expected. "You could see in the absence of adequate training, people could just screw up," he said.

Cuyahoga County was searching for memory cards holding votes from 74 polling locations. Spokeswoman Jane Platten said the cards might have been left in machines, but she would not discuss details, citing security concerns. The county had reported results from only about 86 percent of precincts by midday yesterday.

Matthew Damschroder, elections chief in Franklin County, which includes Columbus, defended the training of poll workers.

"We've had poll workers with the old system who after 10 years still made mistakes," Mr. Damschroder said. "It's going to be a learning curve, no matter what we do."

The two companies that provided voting machines to Ohio counties said that overall the devices worked well, citing only a few memory cards that failed and were quickly replaced.

The worst problems appeared to be in Cuyahoga County, where officials resorted to paper ballots after touch-screen machines failed, and about 17,000 absentee ballots were being hand-counted.

David Bear, spokesman for Diebold Inc., which supplied Cuyahoga's machines, said ovals on the ballots printed by the county did not line up properly for optical-scan machines to read them, he said.

Miss Linkof the Ohio ACLU said the problems went far beyond snags that could be expected, including complaints that voters were sent away by poll workers who were perplexed by the machines. In those cases, voters should have been offered paper ballots.

"We're not conspiracy theorists unless gross incompetence is a conspiracy, and that's what we saw," she said. "The elected officials charged with ensuring that citizens get to vote are not doing their job."

John Daley of Cuyahoga Falls near Akron said poll workers suggested he leave after some machines malfunctioned. He asked for a paper ballot, then the optical-scan system began working.

"I said, 'No, I'm not leaving,'" Mr. Daley said. "I kind of got frustrated."