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Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

Mercer County seeks exemption from state's election rule

From Associated Press
CLEVELAND - Mercer County is one of three counties asking the state for permission to continue counting ballots at one central location instead of at the precincts - a new requirement for the November presidential election.
Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat who has made election reform a priority, has asked that all counties have their paper ballots counted at the precincts and not at a central site.
Mercer County currently counts its ballots at the elections office in the courthouse and does not have scanners for each precinct. Van Wert County and Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, also do a central count.
The three have asked Brunner to reconsider this requirement due to concerns over cost and the possibility that newly purchased equipment could soon be outdated. The three switched for the March 4 primary from touch-screen electronic voting to paper ballots - another requirement of Brunner's.
But continuing the central-count optical scanning is a move that is expected to draw opposition from critics who believe it doesn't let a voter know about ballot errors.
On Monday, Brunner was still deciding what to do with their request, said Jeff Ortega, a spokesman in Brunner's office.
The Mercer County election officials' letter to Brunner said: "We fear a changeover will be a hardship for our county, our workers and our voters."
Mercer County Board of Elections Director Lynn Wylds said the board currently is looking at its options.
"We have quotes coming from vendors on how much it will cost to get the scanners. And right now, we still don't know how many we will need," she said. "We're still hoping we can get this overturned, but in the meantime we have to view our options and be prepared."
Cuyahoga County could face a cost of about $10 million for equipment to run paper ballots through scanners at precincts. Sandy McNair, a Democrat on the Cuyahoga County elections board, said the cost of buying more scanners might not be worth the benefit.
Brunner said new technology awaiting federal government certification will both create images of paper ballots and place votes onto memory cards.
"We are feeling very cautious and think we may be better off to wait," Brunner said.
Brunner said her office is hoping to administer a no-interest loan program to help counties eventually upgrade voting equipment.
American Civil Liberties Union will continue to oppose central scan vote tabulation, said Meredith Bell-Platts, staff counsel for the ACLU's Voting Rights Project. The ACLU filed a lawsuit against Cuyahoga County before the primary, but dropped it with the understanding that central scanning wouldn't continue for the general election.
Rob Frost, chairman of the Republican Party in Cuyahoga County and a member of the county's elections board, did not sign Cuyahoga board's letter to Brunner. Frost said he thinks central count vote scanning is imperfect.
"It was forced on Cuyahoga County by Secretary of State Brunner for the March primary," Frost said. "It was acceptable as a temporary stop gap."
He said a $21 million touch-screen voting system that gave voters notice of an error and a second chance was put into storage before the primary, Frost said.
"Whether we will use touch-screen or a precinct-based optical scan is where we need the guidance and technical support of the secretary of state," Frost said.
- Daily Standard reporter Betty Lawrence contributed to this story.
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