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How the vote got messed up

Lorain kept election schedule; Cuyahoga problems snowballed

 

May 31, 2006

Joan Mazzolini

Plain Dealer Reporter

 

A lot had to happen, on time, for the May 2 primary election to be successful in Cuyahoga and Lorain counties.

 

Both counties were using Diebold's new optical scanners to count absentee ballots, so they had technical challenges to overcome.

 

Both counties had to modify the machines, wiring them directly into elections computers to bypass the limited capacity in the machines' memory cards.

 

Both counties also needed big stacks of test ballots to run through the machines to see if they counted accurately.

 

Both counties needed to test the machines well before Election Day, leaving enough time to fix anything that did not work.

 

But only one county, Lorain, met the deadline. Cuyahoga was a step behind from the start and never caught up.

 

The result was that Lorain County voters learned the results of their elections May 2. Cuyahoga voters waited five more days.

 

Lorain County had one advantage. It had the four optical scanners it needed on hand six months before Election Day. Cuyahoga County, nearly five times the size of Lorain, received five machines from the secretary of state's office in January, but it had been lobbying for more since late December.

 

After months of back-and-forth discussions, Cuyahoga received 15 more optical scan machines April 14, just 18 days before the primary.

 

"Things were running late," said Michael Vu, director of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections. "But it was more global, it wasn't just localized to the board."

 

One of the key problems involved the memory cards for the machines. They did not have the capacity to hold the 2,000 different ballots to be used in Cuyahoga County for the primary.

 

Diebold consultants in both counties told election officials they were pushing the state to approve modifying the machines to get around the memory cards. The modification, used in other states, wires the machine to election computers, which contain all forms of the ballots.

 

Ohio's Board of Voting Machine Examiners certified the modifications in mid-February.

 

But the two counties differed in their approach to the changes.

 

Lorain elections officials ordered the equipment they needed from Diebold on April 12, said Marilyn A. Jacobcik, director of the Lorain County Board of Elections.

 

The equipment arrived the next day, on April 13, and the county's four machines were wired into elections computers that afternoon, Jacobcik said.

 

Cuyahoga County went to other vendors for the equipment and didn't get everything it needed until April 25, seven days before the primary.

 

"We received something from Diebold showing the cost would be nearly $6,000," Vu said. "Anything over $5,000 we have to bid."

 

Vu said two other vendors came in less than $6,000.

 

Going with another vendor created a new problem, with board officials needing confirmation from Diebold that they were buying the right equipment.

 

"We tried to get confirmation on April 10 . . . but we didn't get a response back until April 18," Vu said.

 

Then, Vu said, the Diebold consultant adapting the machines didn't get training on the conversion until April 22.

 

"We're now a week away from the election," Vu said. The modifications were not complete until April 28 or 29, four days before the primary.

 

Even if the machines had been ready earlier, Cuyahoga County didn't have ballots to conduct tests.

 

Lorain election officials ordered their absentee and test ballots in early January and had the absentee ballots in hand by early April, the same time Cuyahoga's four-member board was getting around to picking a printer to do the ballots.

 

The test ballots for Lorain arrived April 14, and by the 19th, the testing of the optical scan machines was complete.

 

"It was a little later than we would have liked," Jacobcik said of the testing. But she said the conversion from punch ballots to electronic voting "was a learning experience."

 

In Cuyahoga County, elections officials and Diebold representatives were worrying in mid-April that their test ballots wouldn't arrive in time.

 

The printer, MCR Inc., gave assurances to the county, but the test ballots did not arrive until April 30, two days before the primary.

 

On May 1, testing began. By 2:30 a.m. Election Day, elections officials realized that machines were not counting accurately and decided not to use them.

 

Instead, temporary workers began hand-counting 15,000 absentee ballots on Election Day. They finished five days later.

 

To reach this Plain Dealer Reporter:

jmazzolini@plaind.com, 216-999-4563

 

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