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Systemic problems plagued election in Mercer County



Published: Thu, February 10, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



A glance at the recommendations of Mercer County's Independent Election Commission explains why the Western Pennsylvania county became part of a national story about major foul-ups in last November's presidential election.

What the commission is recommending to prevent a repeat of the Nov. 2 debacle should have been standard operating procedure.

Why is it necessary to tell the county commissioners to take responsibility for ensuring that the election process works efficiently and complies with the law? In that same vein, why does anyone directly involved in conducting an election have to be told that public tests of the touch-screen voting machines are required?

Or, why aren't training programs already in place for election workers, members of the county Information Technology Office and employees of the board of elections?

Or, why aren't ongoing voter education programs already in place so that voters have a better understanding of the voting machines?

The Independent Election Commission, appointed by the county commissioners to determine, among other things, the cause of a computer coding error that resulted in 13 precincts in the 4th Congressional District experiencing malfunctions, also recommended that the director of the board of elections serve on a full-time basis.

The former director, James Bennington, who stepped down Dec. 31, has acknowledged that being a part-time employee of the board had its drawbacks.

Bennington admitted that he was responsible for the error in coding the computers.

Finger of blame

An official of Unilect, the California company that sold the county the voting system, has made it clear that the failure of county personnel to perform three recommended pre-election tests created problems in the general election.

Jack Gerbel contended earlier this month that failure to test the machines showed a lack of oversight in the county.

Having a full-time director of the elections board would ensure attention to detail that is absolutely essential for a trouble-free election.

The commission's final -- to us, singularly important -- recommendation is for the county commissioners to find a way of providing a "voter verifiable paper ballot" to go along with each electronic voting unit. This would enable a voter to see in print his ballot and alert precinct officials to any misrecording of the votes.

Indeed, a federal law aimed at bringing uniformity to national elections requires a paper audit of the votes cast.

The manufacturers of the touch-screen system in use in Mahoning County for the past couple of years have shown little interest in giving voters the ability to make a printout of their voted ballots.

This refusal has prompted Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell to issue an order requiring all counties to choose from one of two optical scanner voting systems. Votes are cast on a paper ballot, which is then fed into a computer that optically scans it and records the votes. A tabulation machine spits out the overall totals.

Mercer County commissioners will have no choice but to select a voting system that provides a paper trail if the makers of the touch-screen system refuse to budge.

In the end, however, any system is only as good as the people operating it. And, any election is only as trouble-free as everyone from the director on down want it to be.

Mercer County cannot afford a repeat of the Nov. 2 general election.




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