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Akron Beacon Journal

The Beacon Journal

 

Posted on Sun, Dec. 10, 2006

 

Summit ponders printing ballots

Elections panel looks at buying digital printer to avoid voting delays

By Lisa A. Abraham

Beacon Journal staff writer

 

The Summit County Board of Elections is considering purchasing printers to print its own ballots to avoid problems like this year's delay in getting absentee ballots on time.

 

Due to a series of mistakes and delays, Summit County did not receive its absentee ballots from Election Systems & Software -- makers of the county's optical scan voting system -- until three weeks after absentee voting was to begin.

 

The delays -- some of which were due to legal challenges over ballot issues, and some of which resulted from printer errors -- ended up costing the county thousands of dollars in employee overtime as workers raced to get ballots in the mail in time for voters to get them back on time.

 

Summit wouldn't be the first county to make the move to in-house printing.

 

Earlier this year, Douglas County, Neb.-- where the Omaha-based ES&S is located -- spent $120,000 to purchase its own digital printer to make its own optical scan ballots.

 

The goal was to save money on printing costs, but Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps said he knows he saved headaches as well as dollars.

 

``We have had trouble with delays. If I had delays (being located in Omaha), I can't imagine what other people had,'' Phipps said.

 

Phipps emphasized that his primary reason for switching to in-house printing was to lower costs by cutting out ES&S as the middle man. He said Douglas County spent about $25,000 to print 430,000 ballots for the Nov. 7 election, but would have spent more than $100,000 to buy them through ES&S.

 

ES&S requires ballots used with their machines to be printed by companies which they have certified.

 

$75,000 saved

 

After saving $75,000 in one election, Phipps estimates the digital printer will pay for itself in two elections. With ES&S, ballots cost about 24 cents, compared with the 9 cents the county paid to print its own.

 

``It was easier than we thought. This was the best decision we ever made,'' Phipps said.

 

Summit County paid 34 cents per page, or about $240,000 for the November election, elections director Bryan Williams said.

 

Summit County election officials like the idea of controlling their own fate when it comes to ballot printing. The October delays in getting absentee ballots angered and frustrated board members.

 

Board Chairman Wayne Jones, a Democrat, said he is serious about buying printers.

 

``We can control the timing of it, the quality and all that, he said. I'm just making sure that it's cost-effective. That's the big thing. Assuming it would be cost-effective, I'd like to explore it. Republicans are also in favor of exploring the matter.

 

``It's a legitimate issue to look into it,'' said board member Alex Arshinkoff. ``We have to do a cost analysis to see if it's best to be doing it in house or best to do it in a print shop.''

 

Arshinkoff said cost is a factor, but so is making voting deadlines, particularly with the advent of absentee voting for any reason in Ohio. That resulted in a huge increase in the number of voters opting to cast absentee ballots.

 

``When our fate is in the hands of some printer, it complicates it,'' he said.

 

Overtime savings

 

Williams said being able to control when ballots are printed could save employee overtime costs and the administrative hassles of trying to get absentee ballots out in a rush.

 

When absentee ballots are mailed late, voters grow tired of waiting and come to the board to vote absentee in person. The board has some small printers that can run a limited number of ballots. But then the board staff must deal with constant checking and cross-checking to make sure voters weren't issued two ballots by mistake.

 

Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, a national nonprofit organization that works with elections administrators, said few counties have moved to in-house printing.

 

But Lewis said he wouldn't be surprised to see more counties exploring it because there aren't enough experienced ballot printers to handle the increasing need for optical scan ballots.

 

``Optical scan grew at such a hugely progressive rate. In two years, it went from 30 percent of the voting machines in the country to 48 percent,'' he said.

 

Optical-scan growth seen

 

With growing concerns over the security of touch-screen voting, he said as much as 70 percent of the country could be using optical scan voting machines before long.

 

``We have not proportionately increased the number of ballot-printing facilities in America,'' Lewis said.

 

And ballot printing is not a business many printers want to get into because the work is so exacting and so time-critical, he said.

 

If timing marks on ballots are off by even a fraction, they can't be correctly read by the optical scanners.

 

In Ohio, only three printers -- none of them local -- have been certified by ES&S to print ballots. State law requires that ballots be printed in-state.

 

Lewis said he expects more counties will seek out local printers who are willing to print ballots, but innovations in digital printers may also make it possible for elections boards to do the work.

 

``Necessity is the mother of invention,'' Lewis said.

 

``I think, at least for the time being, we're going to see locations either farm it out to local printers or take it on themselves because they cannot afford to be told that the ballots are going to be late,'' he said. ``Right now, the industry is not prepared to absorb the increased usage of optical scan units.''

 

Lisa A. Abraham can be reached at 330-996-3737 or labraham@thebeaconjournal.com.

 

2006 Beacon Journal and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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