CINCINNATI - Ohio's effort to clean up its voting system before the presidential primary on March 4 has pitted state election leaders against local officials over an order to provide a paper ballot to any voter who requests one.
Secretary of State Jennifer L. Brunner, a Democrat, wants to eliminate touch-screen machines for the November election from the 53 counties that still use them and install optical scan machines to provide a paper trail.
Because the conversion cannot be completed in time for the primary in most counties, Ms. Brunner ordered the printing of paper ballots as an interim step.
"The paper ballots are not only going to provide a voter alternative for those who prefer not to use touch-screen machines, but they may also alleviate long lines," Ms. Brunner said. "We expect a much higher than normal turnout in the primary."
But some local officials contend the paper ballots are unnecessary and have gone to court to fight the requirement.
"We felt it was a waste of taxpayer money because we have confidence in our system," said David Phillips, the county prosecutor in Union County, who estimated the paper ballot initiative would cost his county $68,000. He argued that state law put the choice of voting systems in the hands of county officials.
A Union County judge has issued a temporary restraining order barring the state from enforcing the change. The case challenges the secretary of state's authority to dictate which voting systems are used. It was moved Friday to Franklin County, where Ms. Brunner's office is located.
The Ohio attorney general has filed motions in state and federal courts to quash the temporary restraining order so that the paper ballot initiative can commence.
Ohio is scrambling to correct serious flaws in its voting systems that were uncovered in a study released in December. Touch-screen machines were found to be vulnerable to hackers using devices as rudimentary as magnets and personal digital assistants, and security measures were found to be inadequate to prevent fraud.
With touch-screen machines still in use, Ms. Brunner's office has begun supplemental poll worker training and taken additional steps to improve the tracking of the chain of custody of voting machines.
Officials in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, and three other counties scrapped touch-screen machines and are converting to optical scanners for the primary. Cuyahoga was the scene of election fraud in 2004, when several officials were convicted of tampering with results to circumvent a recount. Ms. Brunner fired the four-member elections board and temporarily took day-to-day control before appointing a new board.
In Union County, Karla R. Herron, the board of elections director, is waiting with her hands tied, barred from printing paper ballots three weeks before the primary.
"I'm doing everything I can to prepare without breaking the law," Ms. Herron said.
Other changes are being debated in the legislature, controlled by Republicans. The Senate has passed a bill that ensures that votes cast properly in some races on a ballot will be counted, even if votes in other races have to be discarded because too many candidates were selected.
Ms. Brunner's goal of replacing touch-screen systems by November is far from a certainty, with resistance from county officials happy with the touch-screen systems and a lack of state or federal money to make a change.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company