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Mahoning elections chief touts new $2.25 million voting equipment

YOUNGSTOWN — Mahoning County has new voting equipment that its board of elections director says will make counting ballots, particularly for early voters, easier.

Training has begun on the $2.25 million worth of equipment, obtained through state funding.

The most noticeable change will be for those who come to the board’s office at Oakhill Renaissance Place, 345 Oak Hill Ave., to vote early, said Director Joyce Kale-Pesta.

The old system had early in-person voters cast paper ballots and then put them in envelopes as well as sign the application and the envelope. That required election employees to spend numerous hours opening the envelopes and flattening the ballots before they could be placed into optical scanners to be counted, Kale-Pesta said. Sometimes the ballots weren’t flattened enough, causing delays.

The new system has those same voters get a piece of paper with a QR code, and put that into a machine with the ballot appearing on a computer screen. Voters cast ballots electronically on the machine and when done, a paper ballot is printed for review, Kale-Pesta said. That ballot is then put into a ballot box for storage.

When it is time for board employees to count the ballots, the paper is already flat and not inside an envelope.

“It becomes a five-minute process to tally all of those votes,” Kale-Pesta said.

The board no longer has to purchase envelopes, and the new system will be able to print ballots at the office rather than having to hire a printing company to do that work, she said.

The board wanted to start using the equipment in this election, with turnout expected to be light, in preparation for the 2020 presidential election, with significantly more voters expected to cast ballots, Kale-Pesta said.

“If we have 40,000 (early-vote) ballots in a presidential election (as it did in 2016), it can take us two to three days to open them,” she said. “Now, we won’t have to worry about that anymore. It’s a quicker system and it’s easier.”

The updated voting system also includes 250 new optical scanners at polling locations that can read ballots at those places.

In 2011, the county switched back to paper ballots after nine years of using an electronic touch-screen system.

“I believe in the paper system,” Kale-Pesta said.

Over the years, the board has had issues with the paper system — caused by human error. Problems included misplacing ballots in the November 2015 election and double-counting more than 6,000 early votes in November 2017 after a scanner wasn’t reset. The latter problem was caught before the election night totals were given to the Ohio secretary of state, but not before incorrect numbers were given to the media.

dskolnick@tribtoday.com