Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Continuing Election Technology Problem in Ohio

Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported on continued voting problems in Ohio. In this instance, the ACLU is attempting to prevent the use of optical scan ballots, claiming that Cuyahoga County would be using “balloting technology that does not give notice to voters of problems with their ballot.” The ACLU contends that without the opportunity to be notified of and correct errors, a large number of ballots will go uncounted.

According to a press release issued January 28, the ACLU has filed a Motion for a Preliminary Injunction with the Federal Court for the Northern District of Ohio, a copy of which can be found here. The ACLU is attempting to prevent Cuyahoga County’s use of these optical scan ballots which would be sent to a central processing location for tabulation purposes. Such a system, according to the ACLU, does not alert voters of any errors in their ballot (ex. double voting, failure to mark ballot) and does not provide the ability for voters to correct such errors. If optical scan ballots are to be used, the ACLU contends that the ballots should be scanned at the polls, as is done in other Ohio counties, to alert voters to potential errors.

A deadline of February 4 has been set for the State to respond to this motion. Ohio Secretary of State, Jennifer Brunner, has stated that the ACLU”s proposal would disallow the casting of absentee ballots. In essence, absentee ballots are completed and counted in the same manner as the ballots in question – absentee voters complete their optical scan ballot at home and mail it into a central location to be tabulated, without any notification of potential errors that would need to be corrected. In addition, Brunner has alleged that this lawsuit comes too late to allow a switch back to the previous system of touch-screen voting.

The goal behind the requirement of moving all states to some type of electronic voting was to ensure that preventable errors could in fact be prevented. However, as has been demonstrated in Ohio and other locations, many of the new systems are inaccurate and/or unreliable. As such problems were occurring in Ohio, the Secretary of State ordered a return to what is considered a more trustworthy system.

The major difficulty in the present situation is the closeness of the primary election in Ohio. The decision made by Jennifer Brunner was made knowing that something had to be done in order to ensure the most accurate and reliable system of voting with sufficient time to train poll workers. No matter what choice she made – stay with touch-screen or move to optical scan – the potential for error existed; knowing this, it seems that she made the best possible choice under the existing conditions.

That being said, I am not sure why other Ohio counties have on-site optical scanners while Cuyahoga County does not. Having these scanners on-site would seem to placate the ACLU while preventing voter error. The issue now may once again come down to time – there may not have been enough time to acquire such machines for the county and/or there may not have been enough time for training. However, now that this issue has been brought to light by the ACLU, the smart solution would be to carry on with the primary election as planned while ensuring that the proper technology will be in place for the November election. As there is little time to retrain poll workers and/or bring in additional technology, this plan would seem to allow the primary election to run in the smoothest manner with lesser fear of poll worker error, while also correcting any errors and providing sufficient training to poll workers in time for the November Presidential Election.

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