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ELECTIONS Mahoning Co. meets equipment deadline



Published: Fri, February 11, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Some counties still want touch-screen machines, despite Blackwell's deadline.

COLUMBUS (AP) -- Mahoning County elections officials met the deadline for picking a company to provide new voting equipment, while holding out hope of keeping their electronic touch-screen machines.

The county was one of 83 that complied with Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell's Wednesday deadline to choose an optical scan machine vendor. Two counties of the five that did not meet the deadline obtained court orders preventing Blackwell from enforcing his deadline on their elections boards.

Mahoning County officials said they will still look for a way to continue using touch-screen machines.

"We're doing what Ken Blackwell tells us to do," said Thomas McCabe, deputy director of the county's elections board. "There's only one boss."

Last month, Blackwell ordered elections officials in all 88 counties to pick their preference of two types of optical-scan machines, which read marks voters make on paper ballots.

Blackwell has said that optical scan in the only affordable option to meet a federal requirement that voters have a paper receipt to check their ballot choices.

Common Pleas Judges Laurie Pittman of Portage County and John Bessey of Franklin County issued their orders Wednesday in response to complaints filed on behalf of their boards of election. The boards said a dispute between Blackwell and Attorney General Jim Petro should be resolved before the county picks a vendor.

Complaints

Several boards have complained that Blackwell has eliminated the choice of electronic touch-screen machines from a federal program that will pay for the new equipment. Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002 after the outcome of the 2000 presidential election was held up by problems with punch card voting in Florida.

Petro issued an opinion Tuesday saying Blackwell was not acting within his authority when he issued his directive on Jan. 12. The opinion, which would not be binding in court, said an Ohio law passed last year that spelled out part of the state's role in enforcing the Help America Vote Act left selection of voting systems up to the county boards.

Blackwell maintains the federal law leaves enforcement of its provisions up to his office.

Both Blackwell and Petro are seeking the Republican nomination for governor.

Petro's office, which typically represents state agencies in court, will not represent Blackwell in the two cases because of the opinion. It will be up to Blackwell to hire special counsel to defend the directive, Petro said. Blackwell spokesman James Lee said Thursday that his office was reviewing Petro's opinion and no decision had been made on who would represent Blackwell.

Besides Portage and Franklin, the counties that had not met Blackwell's deadline were Cuyahoga, Hamilton and Lake, all of which have indicated they would like a chance to consider electronic touch-screen voting machines.

Spokesman Carlo LoParo said Blackwell's office would work with counties that missed Wednesday's deadline in choosing an optical scan vendor.

Portage County Prosecutor Victor Vigluicci said he supports Petro's position and asked for Pittman's order at the request of the county elections board, which used electronic machines in the 2004 election.

"They felt they did not want the secretary of state making that decision for them. They were kind of in a bind," Vigluicci said. "They felt the optical scan system was a step back in technology."

Other developments

Also on Wednesday, state Sen. Tim Grendell said he would soon introduce legislation that would allow some counties to use electronic machines without meeting all the requirements of state law.

Grendell, a Chesterland Republican whose district includes Lake County, said that under the bill, counties that can meet the requirements for touch screen machines would not have to be equipped with devices that allow voters to see a paper copy of their choices until "such reasonable technology is available."

Gov. Bob Taft in May signed a bill into a law that would require electronic machines to have such devices. The bill would apply to few counties, probably only Franklin, Lake and Mahoning, Grendell said.

LoParo said Blackwell likely would not support Grendell's legislation.

"We have limited resources, a federal mandate and a looming deadline," LoParo said.




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