BY ED GEBERT

Times Bulletin News Writer

egebert@timesbulletin.com

Van Wert County is still waiting to find out if the November 2008 election will cost an additional $8,000-9,000.

Board of Elections Director Linda Stutz reported that she still has not received word on the county's request to count all the ballots cast at the board office, as has been done for years. Van Wert County, along with Mercer and Cuyahoga counties have requested that Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner petition the Legislature to amend current law and allow counting to be done at a central location instead of at each polling place. If lawmakers turn down that request, the county will have to rent additional equipment for vote counting this fall, and the cash-strapped county budget simply does not have the funds to do it.

"Right now our appropriations are zeroed out," reported Commissioner Harold Merkle. "Even though we had one good month with sales, that was followed by two months of low figures. We're just barely above where we were last year, and that was below where we were the year before that."

However, if the county's request is rejected, optical scanning machines will have to be rented to put at each polling place. Those machines tally paper ballots turned in by voters. Stutz reported that at present rates, the scanners are renting for $750 each and that the county would need to rent 10 of them to handle the election. With shipping and possible price increases, the county could easily be stuck with a bill of more than $8,000.

Brunner has fought against the use of electronic voting machines due to the possibility of tampering. She also wants votes to be scanned and counted at the precinct level so that an error in marking the ballot can be immediately detected and corrected by the individual voter. She has been leading the call for combining groups of precincts into "vote centers" in much the same way the residents of the City of Van Wert all vote at the fairgrounds.

That call has been joined by the American Civil Liberties Union. That organization has threatened lawsuits against counties who use centralized counting.

That may work fine in the city, but combing far-flung precincts into "vote centers" would mean additional miles to drive for many county voters to cast ballots. Without grouping precincts into five such centers throughout the county, the total bill for the election would grow even larger.

"We think it would not be very practical for a rural county like this," Merkle stated. "We think security can best be met by counting the votes at a central location as we did in March."

According to Stutz, the electronic voting machines formerly used by Van Wert County may be leased to other counties needing more equipment. "I have had inquiries from two different counties about the machines, so that will bring in a little bit of income," she said.

However, that income won't come close to covering the $8,000-9,000 needed if the county is forced to rent more optical scanners to tally the paper ballots.

Mercer County has also asked to be allowed to use centralized counting in November, citing the same reasoning as Van Wert. Also included in the request is Cuyahoga County who also scrapped the electronic machines in December and shelled out $1.5 million to rent scanners for the March primary election.

Stutz revealed that her letter to Brunner and state legislators informed them that the central-count optical scan worked well in March. The Mercer County letter from election officials and board members advised Brunner, "We fear a changeover will be a hardship for our county, our workers and our voters."

For her part, Brunner says she is searching for a way to make precinct-based counting affordable for Van Wert and other counties. She is considering a no-interest loan program to help counties upgrade election equipment.

"The Ohio Legislature should know how these three counties' election boards feel," Brunner said. "I don't necessarily agree with calls for status quo, but this is one where it may be very appropriate."

Stutz shared that she is supposed to have the final word from Brunner's office by June 2.