Brunner orders Cuyahoga to vote with paper and pencilsBrunner orders Cuyahoga to scrap its touch-screens
Leila Atassi and Joe Guillen, Plain Dealer Reporters
Voters in Cuyahoga County will cast their ballots using paper and pencils during the March 4 presidential primary and every election from then on.
Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner ordered the county Friday to scrap its $21 million touch-screen voting system, which is less than two years old, and buy high-speed optical scanners that read paper ballots. The new equipment could cost taxpayers as much as $9 million.
"I know Cuyahoga County is doing the right thing," she said. "It's not to say that it won't be difficult."
Brunner's decision broke a tie among members of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, who had reached a 2-2 stalemate Thursday in deciding whether to dump the problematic touch-screen machines. The system's software, made by Premier Election Solutions, formerly Diebold Election System, crashed twice during the Nov. 6 election, delaying results.
"Cuyahoga County needed to have a system that meets its capacity and its needs," Brunner said.
The Board of Elections is already preparing for the change.
Director Jane Platten said that even before Brunner issued her decision Friday evening, board workers had begun arranging for delivery of the new voting equipment in mid-January.
"I think it's a monumental task," Platten said. "But it's no longer a question of can we do it. We must do it and do it the right way. And that's the commitment that we're making."
The board was divided Thursday on a motion to buy equipment from Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software on Brunner's recommendation. Board member Robert Frost and President Jeff Hastings argued that with only 75 days remaining before the election, it would be unwise to make such significant and expensive changes to the voting system.
"I just think it's a shame Cuyahoga County is saddled with another flawed system and will be spending millions on an unbid contract," Frost said.
The company's proposal estimated the equipment for the March primary would cost the county $3 million. An additional $6 million could be needed for the Nov. 4 election.
Brunner has said she will seek federal and state dollars to reimburse the county for the initial cost. Platten said Friday that County Commissioners Tim Hagan and Jimmy Dimora have committed to supporting the change.
Last week, in an 84-page report that found problems with all of Ohio's voting equipment, Brunner said she doesn't trust the touch-screen system, which is used in 57 of the state's 88 counties. The report noted deficiencies with all of the state's equipment.
Although she encourages other counties to replace their systems, she called only upon Cuyahoga County to immediately buy new equipment. Brunner said on Friday she expects a statewide solution by the November general election.
Texas-based Premier Election Solutions defended its equipment Friday.
In a statement, the company said that "our touch-screen system, with proper training, supervision and leadership, works well, is widely accepted by voters and increases voting accuracy by substantial margins."
Under the new system, Cuyahoga voters will fill out paper ballots with pencils at polling locations. The ballots then will be counted at the board's downtown Cleveland offices by high-speed optical scanners. Brunner believes the new system will eliminate the technological problems and security issues the county faced with touch-screens.
But critics argue that the optical-scanning system carries a greater risk of inaccurate election results. Unlike touch-screens, the system does not notify voters if they filled out their ballots incorrectly because the ballots are scanned elsewhere.
The board is considering a pilot program to place up to 60 optical scanners in randomly selected polling locations in March so voters can double-check their ballots.
And Platten said that in the coming months her staff will develop a voter education program, including mailings and notices to guide voters at the polls.
But for now, Platten said, her priorities include drafting the ballots in time and getting rid of 6,300 touch-screen voting machines to make space in the board's warehouse for nearly a million pieces of paper.
"You've got to start somewhere," Platten said. "The ballot is critical, but at the same time so is every other task. We've all got to move, and we've got to move quickly and accurately. Therein lies the challenge."
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