Cuyahoga County Bites Brunner Bullet, Shells Out $1.5 to Lease Optical Scanners for March Primary

OhioNews Bureau

ONB COLUMBUS: The first financial fallout from Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner’s tie-breaking vote last December took place Thursday, when Cuyahoga County commissioners reluctantly doled out $1.5 million to lease 15 machines that will tabulate and count votes centrally instead of in precincts, as has been standard practice in all previous elections.

The decision to enter into a lease agreement for the machines comes in the wake of Brunner’s controversial decision to force the county to switch from touch-screen voting machines to paper-ballot scanners for Ohio’s March 4th primary. Brunner is using the county as a testing zone and wants the other 56 counties that now use touch-screen technology to switch to optical scanners for the November general elections.

According to a published report in The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, two of the trio of Democrats reluctantly approved the expenditure, knowing the county may never be reimbursed for the expense because Brunner didn’t have a pot of funds to draw from when she broke the tie and has only committed herself to “researching the options and finding where there could be pockets that could reimburse,” according to an agency spokesman.

Moving forward with the lease because of their “obligation to conduct the election,” commissioners Tim Hagan and Jimmy Dimora said Brunner’s decision to make such a big change in such a short time gave them “little choice but to comply” with her order.

The president of the troika, Peter Lawson Jones, the only African-American commissioner in Ohio, was the lone dissenting vote. The graduate of Harvard College and Law School said what other election experts have said and what a growing chorus of citizens are thinking, namely, that the new system may not be any more accurate or faster than the $21 million system of Diebold touch-screen machines the county purchased in recent years. Poor performance with some of these machines has contributed to problems and delays in previous elections.

In a previous public statement on Brunner's push to switch to new voting machines, Lawson characterized available options as "remote and undesirable." Faced with a choice not of his choosing, he said, “"It's a difference between the bad, the ugly and the ugliest."

The lease of these ES&S machines at $27,500 each could lead to an even bigger payday for Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software, which is giving the county a $20,000 credit it can apply to the $47,000 cost of buying them outright.

Brunner wants voting in all 88 Ohio counties in November to take place using optical scanners. Her controversial proposal has generated considerable push back from local election officials and a growing number of county commissioners who fund them. They say buying new machines when their current machines are working properly and voters understand them is a waste of precious, dwindling tax dollars at a time when financial woes are confronting both local and state officials.

The connection between Cuyahoga County and ES&S is curious in another aspect. Two lobbyists – Thomas J. Hayes and Lee C. Weingart – represent both.

Hayes is former Cuyahoga County administrator and board of elections director and served as Director of the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services under former Governor Bob Taft.

Weingart is founder and president of LNE Group, an advocacy and lobbying group headquartered in Cleveland. Weingart, who has a long list of Republican statewide office holders he’s been involved with, also was a Bush Pioneer in the 2000 race for the White House.

Whether there's anything more to this relationship than what meets the eye is strictly speculative. Maybe its just political kismet.

John Michael Spinelli is a former Ohio Statehouse government and political reporter.

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Something needed to be's done now. So much can be accomplished when you work thru the fear.

At least with the optiscan, there's an auditable paper trail. Cold comfort these days though.