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To Make a $30M Decision, Ohio County Turns to Mock Elections

The choice between two voting machines for Franklin County could come down to how voters react to the devices during upcoming test runs.

(TNS) — Special elections March 1 and March 8 will help make what could be a $30 million decision in Franklin County.

Anyone can cast a ballot in those elections. You don't have to be one of the county's 854,000 registered voters or even an American to vote at the Board of Elections' 1700 Morse Road location those two Wednesdays. You also can vote as many times as you want.

Officials are using those two elections to test the two finalists competing to provide new voting machines for Franklin County.

"This is so (voters) can touch it, feel it, see how it works," elections spokesman Aaron Sellers said. "The purpose of this is to try to get feedback from the general public ... so we can evaluate."

The mock elections — each from 3 to 7 p.m. — also will give elections workers a chance to evaluate each system to see, for example, if they are easy to set up for poll workers and if the machines' software works correctly as votes are cast.

"We don't want a complex system interfering with voters' right to cast votes," Board of Elections Director Ed Leonard said.

The new voting systems are needed because the current 4,375 Franklin County voting machines bought in 2005 are aging and need to be replaced.

The two finalists are Elections Systems & Software and Hart Intercivic.

The options include machines that count paper ballots, machines in which votes are made on a touch screen and a hybrid that lets voters make selections on the touch screen, with results then printed out and fed into a scanner to be counted.

That flexibility is needed because paper ballots account for about 40 percent of Franklin County votes cast, in the form of early or absentee ballots. Franklin County can have 1,200 different ballots, depending on where each voter lives and the number of issues and candidates eligible.

The elections board's goal is to choose a voting system in time to be bought this summer. That's because officials want the new machines used in the 2019 election, when fewer votes are expected versus the 2020 presidential election year.

The selection process started in May 2017, with five potential vendors in the mix.

"Obviously, price is going to be a consideration," Leonard said.

The machines Franklin County ultimately chooses are expected to cost $16 million to $30 million.

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, whose office oversees elections in the state, has asked state lawmakers to provide $118 million for Ohio counties to buy voting machines in time for the 2020 election. No action has been taken on that request.

County officials across Ohio are seeking $175 million to pay for about 85 percent of the cost of new voting machines, with counties pledging to pay the difference in purchase price and for the machines' maintenance. Franklin County officials already have put $1 million into a special account to help pay for the new machines.

The machines bought in 2005 cost about $3,000 each but were largely paid for with federal funds. There is no federal money available this time.

After each mock election, the public will be invited to provide feedback on each voting system.

The question to be answered, Leonard said, is, "Do folks like the systems we're considering buying?"

©2018 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.