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Ohio Joins Nationwide Effort to Update Voting Equipment

The broad goal is to get new equipment in place for the relatively light off-year election in 2019 so Ohio is geared up for the 2020 presidential contest.

by Darrel Rowland, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio / June 27, 2017
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(TNS) -- "We don't want to be another Florida."

Those words from Delaware County Elections Director Karla Herron are being echoed across Ohio — indeed, throughout much of the country — as elections officials grow increasingly worried about the growing necessity to replace aging voting equipment.

Virtually no one disagrees with the need.

Problem is, virtually no one wants to pay for a new voting setup. The statewide tab could top $200 million, judging by central Ohio cost estimates.

Tim Ward has a ready retort for such reluctance: "You think having a good election is expensive? Try having a bad one."

The president of the Ohio Association of Election Officials and Madison County elections director said, "We don't want to be sitting there saying I told you so."

Most of Ohio's voting equipment dates to 2005 or 2006, after the federal government paid for massive purchases nationwide following the 2000 debacle in Florida, where the outcome of a presidential election turned on hanging punch-card ballot chads and other aspects of an outdated voting system. The Help America Vote Act provided about $115 million for new equipment in Ohio.

While the touch-screens and optical scanners have generally worked well in the ensuing decade-plus, Ohio elections officials say, continuing to use outdated devices raises the chances of a serious error in counting votes.

"Their life expectancy was 10 years," said Melanie Willeford, deputy elections director in Madison County.

Jane Hanley, Fairfield County elections director, said sometimes the electronic touch-screens have to be re-calibrated on Election Day because votes are not being recorded for the right person.

"Nobody's carrying the cellphone they had in 2005," she said. "Even your car has a newer computer in it than our voting machines."

Herron notes the machines used in Delaware County are not made anymore. To find replacements to serve one of the country's fastest-growing areas, they have to buy refurbished ones that are listed online under technology "relics."

Tina LaRoche, Union County elections director, said, "Nobody wants to wait until something does happen."

The secretary of state's office has asked Ohio's 88 county boards of elections to provide an estimated price tag for new voting systems. A total is expected shortly.

The broad goal is to get new equipment in place for the relatively light off-year election in 2019 so Ohio is geared up for the 2020 presidential contest.

"I am committed to do this before my tenure as secretary of state ends (in January 2019)," Secretary of State Jon Husted told the elections officials group last week.

"This is one that has to get done. Because there will be a day somewhere, someplace where our voting equipment will fail if we don't."

While Husted strenuously insists that Ohio's voting process is secure, he adds, "it is more secure the newer it is."

The former House speaker is telling state lawmakers that by helping counties buy new voting equipment, they can make up for ongoing cuts to local government funds.

"I've tried to cast this as a way that the General Assembly can use this as a tool to rebuild relationships with local governments," Husted said.

Lawmakers did pay a large share for electronic poll books used for the first time in recent elections. But the two-year operating budget currently under consideration by a conference committee has only $1 million set aside for voting equipment. Many elections officials are holding out hope that legislators will provide money in the state capital improvements budget, which likely will be approved in the first half of 2018.

But the Republicans who control the General Assembly are far from making any commitment.

"This will be an issue the caucus monitors and discusses as time moves on," said Brad Miller, spokesman for the House GOP.

John Fortney, Senate Republicans spokesman, said, "Our members are aware of this, and will be talking more about it. As far as any potential plans, it's too early to tell."

Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the elections officials association, said some states are footing the entire bill for new elections equipment. But realistically, he said, Ohio likely will wind up dividing the cost between the state and counties.

While Husted has not yet compiled a statewide cost estimate for new voting equipment, The Dispatch obtained totals from central Ohio elections officials:

  • Franklin County: $11 million to $30 million
  • Delaware County: $4.5 million
  • Fairfield County: $3 million
  • Licking County: $3 million plus (depending on trade-in allowances)
  • Madison County: $1 million to $1.8 million
  • Pickaway County: $1.3 million
  • Union County: $1.5 million

Projecting those kind of estimates statewide on a per-registered-voter basis totals more than $200 million.

Many questions need to be resolved before the costs are finalized, such as how many devices are required per voter, said Brian Mead, Licking County elections director. He and David Payne, Franklin County's deputy director, already are talking about shared mailings, printing and the like.

But one thing is sure, Ward warned: "The longer we delay, the more expensive it's going to be."

Ohio's dilemma is faced by many other states.

"Across the country, state and local election officials have been and are continuing to push for resources to replace aging voting equipment," said Matt Masterson, a former Husted assistant who is now head of the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission.

Unlike in the 2000s, Masterson said, the federal government probably won't supply significant financial help. That means state and local governments must become creative is combining purchasing power or sharing services to make the needed new equipment affordable. Inaction is not an option, he said.

"Eventually, you'll see where this equipment will begin to fail, and become too expensive to maintain," Masterson said.

Ward shudders at the prospect.

"Everybody's looking at Ohio during a presidential election," he said.

"Could you imagine Franklin County having a massive failure on election night?"

That could make Ohio — yes — another Florida.

©2017 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.