Ohio Voters Can Choose Between Digital or Paper Ballot

OhioNews Bureau

ONB COLUMBUS: Paper or plastic? We’ve all been given this choice by our local grocery store cashier. But when it comes to voting in person on or before Election Day as some state laws, including those in Ohio, now allow, the choice will be between casting your vote by using a digital ballot, the hallmark of touch-screen machines, or marking a paper ballot, which Ohio election officials have ordered to be available as soon as March, when Ohio holds its primary.

The choice won’t have the same serious environmental overtones as paper or plastic. Thoughts of being Green or averting the onset of Global Warming won’t be breathing down your neck. What will be of concern, though, is whether your vote will count because it's been accurately tabulated and counted, not lost in the blue nowhere of cyberspace inside a digital voting machine.

A long but thorough treatise on this very issue ran in the Sunday Magazine of The New York Times. Aptly titled ”Can You Count on Voting Machines?,” it featured what’s going on in Ohio today as part of the author’s review of why electronic voting is such a controversial topic and why so many disparate viewpoints have their own grains of truth and stories of horror associated with them.

Of equal importance to the machines used and their degree of vulnerability is the equally hot issue of who can vote. This week the US Supreme Court will hear arguments about the constitutionality of Indiana's voter ID law. Ohio passed its own voter ID law in 2005.

Ohio media reported last week that Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner issued a directive to all county boards of elections (BOE) using electronic touch-screen voting machines that they must provide an optical scan (paper) ballot to any voter who asks for one come Ohio’s fall elections. Absentee voters, who are now allowed by Ohio law to vote 30 days before an election, and provisional voters, who for reasons of identification or registration can’t cast a traditional ballot, use paper ballots.

Adding more controversy to her package of reforms is her proposal that all paper ballots be transported and counted to central-vote centers like a county BOE. By the fall election, when voter turnout is expected to be equal to or greater than in 2004, she wants all voting to be performed by paper ballot optical scanners.

As a Democrat whose one-two punch in her 2006 campaign consisted of beating up on her predecessor, Republican Ken Blackwell’s notoriety for being associated with being both the state elections chief and co-chair of the Ohio Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004, her decision to move away from touch screens to optical scanners is supremely ironic since this was the route Blackwell wanted to mandate in 2005 but didn’t because of the sexy allure touch-screen machines had with BOEs at the time. So years and millions of dollars later, she’s come to the same conclusion Blackwell had years ago(see Cincinnati Enquirer editorial below).

Brunner, 50, a Democrat completing her first year in office, recently released the findings of a costly review of Ohio’s voting systems that demonstrated the scary array of vulnerabilities the state’s voting machines are susceptible to.

Using her patented front-cover story of doing the study to “avoid any loss of confidence by voters that their ballot has been accurately cast or recorded,” Ohio’s first female secretary of state has ordered nearly 65 percent of Ohio counties that use touch-screen machines as their primary voting system to print, at their own cost, a quantity of optically scanned paper ballots equal to 10 percent more than the number of ballots cast in each precinct in a like election. Brunner, making her mandate on a wish and a prayer for funding, said she’ll keep an eye out for federal or state sources as they “may become available.” But until those coffers are opened, local boards of election will have to dig deep to their own budgets. This means they will have to go with hat in hand to their funders, county commissioners, to ask for more money to print paper ballots.

"Funding of elections is a mandate of county government. It is not an option, It's one of those unfunded mandates that I talk about so much." [Deborah Feldman, Montgomery County Administrator, Columbus Dispatch]

The cost of printing paper ballots, along with the cost of switching so quickly from an expensive system of touch-screen to optical scanners, are causing election officials to express worry about where the funding will come from.

As a result of her EVEREST study, Brunner said she has no confidence in the $100 million touch screen system 57 of Ohio’s 88 counties use.

WHO LOVES YA BABY?

Even though it was posted on the Website of the the Ohio GOP because it wasn't available online for reasons that remain unclear as of this writing, the editorial by The Columbus Dispatch (CD) came out swinging against Brunner, a candidate they endorsed last year. The major daily newspaper the Brunner camp believes is their friend, said that instead of being the "voice of calm, confidence and assurance," she has become the voice of "alarm and distrust." When Ohio's Greatest Home Newspaper, a paper Brunner thought was squarely in her corner and would support her, giving her the benefit of the doubt, turns hostile, it should be a wake up call to her that she needs to rethink her self-righteous, arrogant, I'm-right-and-everybody-else-is-wrong" attitude.

"Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner’s stated goal is to restore Ohioans’ confidence in elections, but her call for hasty and sweeping changes in the machines and methods of voting is generating doubt instead of confidence.

Brunner has overreacted to researchers’ findings that new voting machines have security flaws...Although the security flaws mentioned in the $1.9 million study can be addressed, Brunner wants to dump all the new machines and convert to optical scanners that count ballots at election offices instead of precincts. State leaders should reject this expensive proposition." [CD editorial]

The Cincinnati Enquirer (CE), the main megaphone of Hamilton County that produced the biggest surprise of all in 2006 when it endorsed her over its own Clerk of Courts who ran against Brunner, echoed the same concerns of the CD.

"...while Brunner says her aim is to "avoid any loss of confidence by voters," the study itself is likely to fuel a perception that Ohio's electronic votes aren't being counted accurately - even though it doesn't document instances of that happening, and doesn't even evaluate the likelihood of it happening.

"Perhaps officials should concentrate on the human element, which has been more likely to compromise votes than the machines themselves...Brunner says she's added a staff member devoted to training poll workers. But with Ohio's current patchwork of several voting systems further complicated by changes that must be made in the next month or so, that may not be sufficient.

"This might not be an issue at all if Ohio had followed the directive of Brunner's predecessor, Ken Blackwell. In early 2005, Blackwell ordered all 88 Ohio counties to install optical scan machines, arguing that DREs were too expensive and controversial. But a number of counties and other elected officials objected, and Blackwell was forced to let counties opt for DREs." [CE, editorial]

The president of the Ohio Association of Elections Officials told the Dayton Daily News that Brunner is “rushing things and not giving counties time to ‘do it right.’" Matthew Damschroder, doing double duty as director of the Franklin County Board of Elections in Columbus, said there is no voter crisis of confidence and the machines have generally worked well. Like everyone else except for machine manufacturers, Damschroder acknowledged that the problems with machines can be overcome by following control recommendations by the manufacturers.

Using Cuyahoga County as her guinea pig, Brunner has jumped the shark by forcing the four-member bipartisan board to switch to optical scan machines, which are expensive, temperamental and prone to their own frailties, and use them for the Ohio primary in early March, a time period others are saying is just asking for trouble.

THE PLAIN DEALER TAPES

The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer (CPD), the hometown newspaper of Cuyahoga County, offered audio records of its hour-long editorial meeting with Brunner. Her comments reveal that she had already made her decision to force the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections *CCBOE) even before her report was issued on December 14th. She told the board and reporters that, after “I looked at the whole myriad of problems” that the costs of staying with the touch-screens were greater than switching to optical scanners. “

"I have no confidence in it. I felt certain we would see failure, especially with multiple types of ballots. There is a lot of frenzy going on. When you look at all the different interests in voting and the push pull that goes on, this will be controversial no matter was we do. I’m doing what I think will will work best for the voters of Cuyahoga County. I’ll take responsibility for whatever happens.” [Jennifer Brunner, CPD]

She took swipes at voting activists whose concerns are legitimate, belittling them by saying that “Unless you do it exactly the way they want it done, they can’t say anything good about what you’ve done.” She also showed her partisan credentials when she said that she only talks with the two new Democratic members of the board, whom she hand selected herself earlier in the year when she fired the previous board, on a frequent basis. “Two of the members talk to me every single week,” she said, adding, “They’ve been talking to me once a week all along.”

As for why she wasn’t present at the last meeting of the board, she said they board “already knew what I wanted them to do” and that had she been there she would have been “this 400 hundred pound gorilla in the room.” As for the two Republican board members, one of which is the chairman of the board, Brunner called Rob Frost a “chicken” for making negative to the media and not to her assistant secretary of state Chris Nance, who was at the meeting.

”Rob frost had already made some rather pointed and partisan comments on Monday and took the chickens way out until Chris Nance left to take care of his ailing uncle to make his negative comments about sos, so I rely didn’t’ feel it was going to be product5ive for me to be there, and again this board is made of four very competent attorneys who were capable if reaching the decisions they reached without me being there. Rob just engaged in a nice display of histrionics for whatever purposes he wanted to.” [JLB, CPD]

She also had harsh and demeaning words for the Ohio ACLU (OACLU), which rumor has it may take her order to switch to optical scanners and counting votes at central-vote locations to court based on their contention that it violates Help America Voter Act rules and could lead to disenfranchisement of voters if an adequate public education program is not performed, an supreme irony considering Brunner’s history of statements about making voting “free, fair, open and honest.”

"(They, the OACLU) don’t have a legal leg to stand on if the board does a public education campaign as HAVA requires; all they can argue in court if you educated enough. If they're saying that you need more than that, then they’re challenging the constitutionality of HAVA. If they choose to do that, it’s very unfortunate and very selfish on their part to subject this county, in order to prove some esoteric point, that s trying hard to make this work." [JLB, CPD]

It seems to this reporter that Brunner is being seriously disingenuous is saying on one hand that she wants the board to be free from pressure to make their own decisions, while on the other she is not only telling them what she wants, but using her authority to break tie votes to get what she wants. Brunner needs to be honest about her desire to be in control and throwing he weight around to be in control.

She should also explain her inconsistency in firing the CCBOE earlier in the year, when it was chaired by Bob Bennett, chairman of the Ohio GOP, but retaining the Putnam County Board and staff when, as recently as the last election in November, willfully disobeyed four of her directives, purchased memory flash cards from an unauthorized online source (memorysuppliers.com – which resulted in serious Election Day screw ups – and lead her and her agency to believe that that they knew what they were doing when they didn’t. She has put them on administrative oversight, but that’s seems a tap on the knuckles compared to her wholesale firing of the CCBOE board.

She also seems to think that what she’s done and how she done it has not already resulted in partisanship and a polarized environment. Her explanation for why she didn’t decertify the state’s touch-screen machines as California Secretary of State Debra Bowen did last year, was that it would have been seen as a partisan issue.

"I knew I could be like Debra Bowen in California and decertify. She’s dealing with a different environment. I know this state well enough; I know the experience I went through with the Cuyahoga Board of Elections; it would set me up to polarize people so that it became a big partisan battle and I don’t think there’s a partisan issue when it comes to a fair election. There isn’t a Democratic or Republican way to run a fair election because people innately know it’s fair." [JLB, CPD]

John Michael Spinelli is a former Ohio Statehouse government and political reporter and business columnist. He now serves as the OhioNews Bureau Chief for ePluribus Media Journal. Find ONB archives here.

If readers have a news tip or story idea about Ohio politics or government, contact the OhioNews Bureau at: ohionews@epluribusmedia.org

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I am not a believer. But I have to admit that CT's replacement of the old lever machines (I did love the clunk sound of my vote "registering") has allayed many of my worries.

But the process was not, at least in my town, haphazard or done without serious preparation in testing, training, and oversight. The machines were introduced over a two-year period, with only 25 towns using them in 2006, where they were extensively monitored and tested and audited against the paper "trail" which are the paper ballots which are scanned.

However, for one snapshot of what's happening around the country with the electronic voting -- you can check out VoteTrustUSA. There are others, but this a quick and dirty compilation website.

her tenacity. As my mother used to say..we are going to do it and do it until we do it right!

Just saw this Opinion very interesting idea!
A Paper Trail for Voting Machines

excerpt:

Paper ballots aren’t perfect. Ballot boxes can be stuffed or lost. Indeed, because of Florida’s paper-ballot mess in 2000, electronic voting is probably here to stay.

Fortunately, there is an elegant solution that lets us use modern technology while assuaging the growing fears about voter fraud. Ronald L. Rivest, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientist, and Warren D. Smith, a mathematician and voting reform advocate, have proposed an ingenious method that would combine paper ballots and a Web site to achieve greater ballot security than is possible with paper or software alone.

Their basic idea is to allow each voter to take home a photocopy of a randomly selected ballot cast by someone else.

The scheme is low-tech. Paper ballots would be tallied by optical scanners or even by hand. The results would be then posted on a Web site. Using a serial number assigned to each ballot, voters could check the site to make sure that their random ballots were posted and had not been altered or misread.

To discourage vote buying, voters would not receive copies of their own ballots. My receipt would be someone else’s ballot, so I would have no way of proving to a bribe-wielding politician whom I voted for. (There are no voter names on secret ballots, of course, so the random receipts would not compromise the privacy of the voting booth.)......................