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Get out your pencils: Paper ballots make a return

By Richard Wolf, USA Today  Posted by Dave Davis (about the submitter)     Permalink
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CLEVELAND — The people involved in overseeing elections will be watching closely Tuesday as Ohio's most populous county votes, but it won't have anything to do with Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton or John McCain.

No place in the nation has had as much trouble running an election in recent years as Cuyahoga County. As it moved from punch cards in 2004 to touch screens in 2006, servers crashed, printers jammed, memory cards disappeared and poll workers were overwhelmed.

So this year, it's back to basics: paper. Voters will fill in ovals the way high school students do on the SATs. They'll drop the ballots in a box, which will be taken to a county warehouse to be counted.

Sound simple? It's not.

The county had 74 days to make the latest switch after Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner decreed that touch screens were out, paper ballots in. Since then, it has mothballed 5,100 touch-screen machines, retrofitted 6,300 old punch-card voting stations, installed 15 high-speed scanners and rewired the warehouse.

It has printed 4,317 different versions of the ballot for different precincts, each with the appropriate choices for the 668 candidates and 47 issues. It has ordered 1,043,930 ballots, sent out 95,470 absentee ballots, hired and trained 7,000 poll workers and armed them with a new 45-page instruction manual.

The county election director on the hot seat, Jane Platten, spends much of her time staring at sample turnout projections writ large on her office wall. Too many voters could mean not enough paper ballots in some locations.

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"In New Mexico, they were using scrap paper," she says, referring to the Feb. 5 primary there. "That's not a standard I will tolerate here."

Back to paper

From Florida to California, the nation's flirtation with electronic voting is on the rocks. More and more states and counties are reverting to paper ballots fed through optical scanners because of problems — some real, some perceived — with machines that didn't offer the level of security and transparency voters demand.

New Mexico began the about-face in 2006, after a 2004 presidential election in which nearly 20,000 ballots could not be counted. President Bush won the state by 5,988 votes.

Florida, whose punch cards were banished after they kept the nation waiting 36 days for a president in 2000, soon followed. Now secretaries of State in California and Colorado, along with Ohio, are pushing their states back to paper. Maryland and Virginia are phasing out touch screens.

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Ohio's 88 counties are using a variety of paper and electronic ballots. Brunner, a Democrat who's touring the state to promote her proposals, wants touch screens abolished by the fall elections. She's leaving the final decision to the Legislature, which must pay the bill.

"The beauty of the paper ballot is that when all else fails, it can be hand-counted," she says.

Not everyone views this as progress. At an Akron forum Wednesday night where Brunner talked to voters, H. Paul Schwitzgebel noted that he had paid a bill online earlier in the day. "I feel like we're going backward," Schwitzgebel said.

For poll workers, the good news is that they no longer have to deal with encoders and memory cards, printer modules and paper spindles. "All that technical stuff confused a lot of people," says Marguerite Strickland, 67.

But Dorothea Franks, 50, of East Cleveland, says the new paper system has a gaping margin for error. Voters who mismark their primary ballots will have no chance to fix them, because the ballots will be scanned at the warehouse, not the polling station. Usually, voters watch as their ballots are scanned and an error-notification feature allows them to correct any mistakes.

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