New vote machines wouldn#039;t have changed results

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The mantra leading up to the November election was ''every vote counts.''

In Ohio, left with chad-bedeviled punch-card systems in two-thirds of its counties because of wrangling over how to replace them, the phrase became ''98 percent of votes count'' - at least based on how many votes were recorded for president out of total ballots cast.

With a directive from the state's election chief last week for counties to pick optical scan machines in preparation for the Nov. 8 election, the state could get closer to the goal, a voting systems expert said. County elections chiefs, however, are divided.

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Even if the systems had been changed in time, the outcome would not have changed in the state that gave President Bush re-election, said Daniel Tokaji, an assistant professor of law at Ohio State University who has been following the Ohio vote and its aftermath. Bush won Ohio by 118,000 votes following a recount, but Democrat John Kerry conceded Nov. 3 after seeing Ohio's unofficial returns.

''We dodged a bullet in Ohio. The margin was big enough that the voting equipment didn't make a difference,'' Tokaji said.

Stark County elections director Jeffrey Matthews said that having optical scan machines ready in November would have meant better accuracy, but touch-screen would have been best. The county had chosen the electronic system before Blackwell's order.

''Voters can get very creative with paper-based systems,'' Matthews said. ''In the electronic environment, voter intent is no longer a subjective exercise.''

No Ohio county is immune from federal and state laws to replace unreliable punch-card and lever ballots nationwide and prevent vote manipulation.

Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell last week said that if counties want aid to pay for replacing machines, they must choose by Feb. 9 between two vendors for precinct-count optical scan systems. Voters use a pencil to mark a ballot and feed it directly into a counting machine at the precinct - giving them instant notice if an error makes the ballot unreadable.

Only Allen, Hardin and Lucas counties of the 13 counties already using optical scan had precinct counting, and their systems are outdated for other reasons, Blackwell spokesman Carlo LoParo said. Lucas had the second-best record of ''undervote'' in the election, with no presidential vote recorded on just 0.7 percent of ballots cast.

''Many of our voters liked to have that paper document,'' said Paula Hicks-Hudson, Lucas elections director. Before last week's decision, the county board was split between touch-screen and scan systems.

Of the 10 Ohio counties with the lowest undervote, six used optical scan, and five of those used the now-banned practice of taking the ballots to a central counting location after polls close.

Optical scan is almost as good as electronic voting for the most accurate counting, Tokaji said. In Maryland, with all touch-screen voting, the unrecorded votes amount to about 0.3 percent.

''That's just about the level of intentional undervoting reported in national surveys,'' Tokaji said.

Optical scan might have an added benefit of security because of the permanent record of the votes.

In Florida, where 52 counties use optical scan and 15 use touch-screen, The Miami Herald was able to inspect the pencil-marked ballots in Democrat-leaning counties and confirm that more voters really did go for Bush. That couldn't be done with electronic voting, because the state doesn't require a paper printout from touch-screen machines as Ohio does.

''I think it's the best system,'' said Becky Kirkbride, elections director in southeast Ohio's Washington County, which uses optical scan. ''You can look directly at the ballot.''

A statewide recount added 115 presidential votes in the county, mostly because the poll workers doing the recount noticed a large number of people who had marked next to the candidate, then marked ''write-in'' and wrote the same candidate's name. The machines rejected those ballots, but workers agreed the voter intent was clear and added them to the total.

Blackwell's decision, driven by cost, doesn't end electronic voting in Ohio. By the 2006 election, every polling place will have at least one touch-screen machine for use by the blind or otherwise disabled.

Carrie Spencer is a correspondent for The Ohio Associated Press in Columbus.