December 21, 2014

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Voting rights organization urges Cuyahoga not to switch

CLEVELAND — A voting rights organization Thursday urged the Cuyahoga County elections board not to make a planned switch to a new voting system for the March presidential primary in Ohio, warning that doing so would violate state law.

Meanwhile, the county’s elections director, Jane Platten, warned that the new tabulation system will mean final vote counts may not be possible in the county on Election Day.

She did not say when the final primary vote county in Cuyahoga County would likely be available. A message requesting further comment was not immediately returned.

"What I understand she is saying is that we might not have results at the earliest until the wee hours of the morning,” said board member Rob Frost, Cuyahoga County’s Republican chairman.

The board is moving to abandon electronic touch-screen voting for a system in which voters fill out paper ballots that are sent to and tallied at a central location by an optical scan computer.

Centralized optical scan tabulation “may be a slower method of tabulating votes,” Frost said, but the elections board can’t worry about that now.

"We’ve got to move on now. Time is short,” he said.

Platten said the county is in initial discussions with a new voting vendor to replace its touch-screen system made by Diebold Inc.’s Premier Election Solutions. She is going forward in making plans with Omaha, Neb.-based voting machines maker Election Systems & Software without a completed vendor contract.

"It’s like putting the carriage before the horse,” Jeff Hastings, the county’s elections board chairman, said after the board’s meeting Thursday.

Frost said it will be up to the county’s commissioners to finalize a vendor contract, and he expects that to happen early in January.

The county also is making arrangements for obtaining paper ballots that can be scanned and is determined to have ballots for absentee voters by Feb. 8, Platten said.

At the board’s meeting, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio hand delivered a letter to the board urging it to reconsider the Dec. 21 decision to switch to the new system.

ACLU staff attorney Carrie Davis said after the meeting a lawsuit was possible, depending on decisions the board makes in the next few days.

The main issue is whether a central optical scan of ballots at the board’s headquarters downtown would result in votes not being counted on ballots that are incorrectly filled out. The ACLU believes the intent of election law is to ensure voters can be notified immediately of a voting error and be able to make a second-chance vote.

The ACLU referred to a part of to Ohio elections law that any voting device used must prevent an inaccurate vote — such as casting more votes than a ballot allows. The ACLU argues that a centralized scan of paper ballots won’t give a voter notice of an incorrectly cast ballot and a second chance.

Patrick Gallaway, a spokesman in Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner’s office, said it’s possible for precinct-based scanners to be used in Cuyahoga County to scan ballots for voters to determine if they contain any errors.

The board last week was deadlocked on whether to make the switch, and Brunner, who had urged the change, broke the tie.