Optical scan voting works in Ohio

More than 400,000 voters went to the polls yesterday in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, using a new optical-scan system that appears to have worked with no more than the usual number of complaints in an election day plagued by foul weather and a closely contested race.

According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the final votes were counted shortly after 5 a.m. March 5, more than seven hours after the first ballots were delivered to the scanning site at 9:44 p.m. March 4. A judge had ordered some polls to remain open for 90 minutes past the 7:30 p.m. scheduled closing time because of complaints from Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) campaign that some voters had not had a chance to cast ballots because of weather and other problems.

As in the rest of Ohio, winners in yesterday's primary vote were Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) in the Democratic race and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on the Republican side.

Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland and its suburbs, retired its touch-screen voting machines this year in favor of a paper optical-scan system with ballots counted at a central location. But a research team from the universities of Maryland, Rochester and Michigan has warned this system has flaws that risk greater voter error than the controversial touch-screen systems.

The researchers say the problem is that the paper ballots are susceptible to stray marks and voter errors that can make them impossible for optical scanners to read accurately. Because they are counted at a central location, the voter does not have an opportunity to pass the ballot through a scanner at the precinct to ensure it has been properly filled in.

Michael Shamos, who runs the eBusiness Technologies program at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science and has a 27-year history of certifying voting systems, recently called central-count optical scan 'the worst method of voting in the United States.'

According to the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, the optical-scan system should be easy to use. 'Simply fill in the oval located next to your selection for a candidate or choice of an issue,' it said.

But it is not foolproof. 'Common ballot problems occur when people vote for too many candidates in one race or when they cast their ballots in the wrong precinct. Make sure you read your ballot carefully and understand how many candidates to vote for. If you make a mistake on your ballot, return it to a Poll Worker and ask for a new one. You can request up to two replacement ballots. Be sure and double check your ballot for accuracy.'

Once the ballot is handed in, that's it. 'Improperly marked votes will not be counted. Once you put your ballot in the ballot box, your vote is final.'

The election board has not yet released figures on uncounted or miscounted ballots. But according to the newspaper, voters at the polls were more concerned about privacy. Most marked ballots were handled by poll workers and placed in ballot boxes without any sleeves to shield them from view. Although some poll workers warned voters not to fold ballots, some voters reported they were advised to fold them to protect their privacy.

No word yet on whether folding would interfere with counting the ballot.

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

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