Voting in Mahoning to return to paper ballots

By David Skolnick


Nine years after switching from paper ballots to electronic touch-screen voting, the Mahoning County Board of Elections plans to return to paper for the November general election.

The new, more sophisticated system will have voters complete a paper ballot and feed it into an optical-scanner machine.

The machine would keep track of the vote totals with the paper ballot dropped into a sealed box. State law requires all ballots have paper backups.

It would cost $684,000 to buy the new machines from Election Systems & Software, the same company that sold the electronic voting machines to the county, said Joyce Kale Pesta, the board’s deputy director.

The county may not have the money to purchase the machines so leasing them is an option that would cost less than $100,000 a year, she said.

Board officials need to speak to county commissioners about buy and lease options, Kale Pesta said. The county likely wouldn’t have to pay for the lease or purchase until January 2012, she said.

The need to replace the county’s current voting machines is great, Kale Pesta said.

“I don’t believe these machines can make it through a presidential election” in 2012, when voters turn out in large numbers, she said.

Of the 1,100 electronic voting machines the board of elections currently has, about 200 no longer work; several others have problems, Kale Pesta said.

“We wouldn’t have enough working machines for the election,” said Robert Wasko, the board’s chairman.

Also, ES&S no longer makes or repairs the voting machines used by the county, Kale Pesta said. Most of the machines were purchased in 2002 from ES&S for $2.95 million.

In late 2005, after state law required a paper trail for all votes beginning with the May 2006 election, the county spent $864,063 to make adjustments to existing machines and purchased 142 others. The state gave $2.1 million to the county from funding provided through the federal Help America Vote Act to offset the expense.

The machines were supposed to have a life of 10 to 12 years, Kale Pesta said.

“When we had to retrofit them [for paper ballots] their life expectancy went down because the machines weren’t built for that,” she said.

The county may be able to sell some parts of the electronic touch-screen machines, including the legs that hold them up and some of the devices used to count votes, Kale Pesta said. She doesn’t know how much money could be recouped through the sale of parts.

The board of elections switched from paper ballots, used for about the previous 17 years, in 2002. That was two years after the controversial 2000 presidential election. Also, board members have said it’s easier to tamper with paper ballots than electronic touch-screen votes.

“You just need someone with malicious intent and a stubby pencil” to fix paper ballots, Mark Munroe, the election board’s vice chairman, said in January 2008 about paper ballots. That came in response to then-Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner telling The Vindicator that touch-screen systems were unreliable and could easily be tampered.

The county’s touch-screen system has had its issues.

Some elections have gone smoothly while others, most notably the 2004 presidential election, experienced problems.

Those problems included the machines not working, wrong votes registered because they weren’t properly calibrated and difficulties starting and shutting down the machines.

Counting votes using the touch-screen machines also was delayed because that occurred at the board of elections’ office. The new paper ballots will be counted at polling locations, Kale Pesta said.

The board of elections moved last week to the first floor of the county-owned Oakhill Renaissance Place. It was to have an open house today to show off its new location as well as demonstrate the proposed voting system. Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted and county commissioners are scheduled to attend the event.

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