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Local ballots will be counted early



Published: Tue, October 31, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



The secretary of state's office won't object to the 'unusual' move.

By DAVID SKOLNICK

VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN -- Because of the large number of absentee votes this election, the boards of elections in Mahoning and Trumbull counties will take an unprecedented move and start counting those ballots at 12:01 a.m. on Election Day.

As of today , 10,359 people in Mahoning County voted absentee, said Thomas McCabe, its director. Also, about 6,000 other people requested absentee ballots, but the elections board hadn't received those ballot by today , he said.

In Trumbull, about 5,800 people voted absentee as of today , and about 4,000 others requested absentee ballots not yet returned to the elections board, said Rokey Suleman, the board's deputy director.

Both counties use touch-screen voting systems at the polls, and paper ballots counted by optical scanners for absentee voters.

Election officials in the two counties say the new statewide no-fault absentee ballot law is the main reason for the large number of absentees for Tuesday's election.

The number of absentee voters is significantly greater in presidential election years than other years, McCabe and Suleman say. But because this is the first general election in Ohio to permit no-fault early voting, the absentee numbers this year are rivaling the 2004 presidential election.

Mahoning County had about 18,000 absentee votes in 2004 and Trumbull had 12,384 that year.

During the last statewide election in 2002, Mahoning had about 9,000 absentee votes and Trumbull had about 4,700.

The two boards will open absentee ballots beginning at noon Saturday, something done in the past.

But for the first time, the boards will begin scanning absentee ballots starting at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. While the absentee ballots will be scanned early, the vote count won't be released until after the polls close at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. The polls open at 6:30 a.m.

It took 10 hours in 2004 for Mahoning County to count absentee votes, McCabe said. He expects it could take that long to count those votes Tuesday.

The elections board has two scanners that can count results on 200 paper ballots a minute, he said.

"We can stack 2,000 ballots at a time but it works better if you do 150 to 200 at a time because of paper jams," he said. "It's a time-consuming process."

Also, the county's optical scanners stop when they detect write-in votes, which slows down the process, he said.

Paper jams are also a problem with the Trumbull optical scanner machines, Suleman said. Because of that, absentee ballots are fed one at a time into the machines, he said. The county has three machines and is looking to rent three more, he said.

It could take as long as 15 hours to count the absentee ballots in Trumbull, Suleman said, but he's hoping for the process to be done quicker than that.

It is unusual to scan ballots at 12:01 a.m., said James Lee, spokesman for the Ohio Secretary of State's Office.

"The law says boards should wait until Election Day" to scan absentee ballots, he said. "We have no intention of fighting the boards over when Election Day actually begins as long as the argument is the clock is a tick after midnight. Some boards of elections are doing this and hopefully by taking this opportunity, they'll be able to get all their ballots processed on Election Day."

The Columbiana County Board of Elections hasn't determined if it will start scanning its absentees early on Election Day, said John Payne, its deputy director.

Columbiana received requests for absentee ballots from about 2,600 people as of today, and received slightly less than 1,000 of those completed ballots back, he said. That is higher than usual for a statewide election, but less than the 4,500 absentee ballots it had in the 2004 presidential election, he said.

The county's one optical scanner can count about 60 ballots a minute, he said.

"We can stack 100 to 200 and run right through all of them in about an hour," Payne said. "It goes quick."

skolnick@vindy.com




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