News: This Election Is Different

Voting isn't what it used to be in Hamilton County

CityBeat Archive

Election 2006

Change is a watchword this election season, and it's not limited to candidates and issues — the way voters casts ballots is different this year.

New state laws mandate significant changes such as no-fault absentee voting and requiring voter identification. The controversy surrounding voting procedures in Ohio during the 2004 election wasn't lost on the Hamilton County Board of Elections when they decided to roll out a new voting process.

The past as much as the future guided the move to digital scanners called the HART Intercivic Voting System that many voters used for the first time during the primary election in the spring. The voting process involves low-tech ballots and high-tech scanning.

In Hamilton County, the new ballots are 8 1/2 inches wide by 17 inches long. Next to each candidate or issue is a box and filling in that box, with a pen constitutes a yes vote.

Once completed, a voter puts the ballot into a scanning machine that accepts or rejects it. If the ballot is accepted, a waving American flag appears on a monitor with a message thanking the person for voting, and the ballot is dropped into a secure bin.

"Hamilton County has been a paper-based county well over 30 years.

We know paper pretty well," says John Williams, director of the Hamilton County Board of Elections. "We chose a paper-based system because there's a certain amount of concerns about digital records. We recognize those issues."

Election workers will show voters how to re-enter a ballot if it's rejected.

Faith in paper
Training the people who staff polling locations includes more than just preparing them to handle questions about the new machines; it also means reminding voters to look at both sides of a ballot and having a procedure in place to give a voter a new one if she makes a mistake. Each person has three chances to get it right.

"We haven't had a two-page ballot in Hamilton County in over 30 years," Williams says. "We're actually creating a little tent card to put in the voting booths so voters are reminded to read both sides."

Add in the large number of issues up for consideration this year and some voters will have a four-page ballot, while others will have three pages. That much reading might lead to some confusion and voting mistakes.

When the polls close, the paper ballots and the memory card with the electronic votes go to the board of elections.

"With our new digital scan ballot, the ballot itself is a record," Williams says. "The whole idea of a voter-verifiable paper audit trail is a good concept because, at the end of the day, it's good to have a hard-copy record to ensure safety. In the event of close recount, paper is the official record."

The Help Americans Vote Act provides states with funds to update their voting systems as long as they replace punch-card voting.

All Hamilton County polling places will have a ballot scanner, in addition to a "direct recording electronic machine" for people with disabilities to use. With it, a voter casts her ballot electronically and then reviews a paper printout to make sure her votes were properly recorded. Once she verifies the printout is correct, the votes are cast and the printout is stored inside the machine. The printout is kept behind glass so there's no way a person can take her ballot with her.

Some Ohio counties are using these electronic voting machines to replace paper ballots. Williams says replacing paper ballots with machines is expensive — each machine costs approximately $5,000 — and labor intensive.

"There's more technical aspects that you have to really understand when you're putting this stuff into the field," he says. "You have to put massive amounts of equipment out in the field. In a place like Cuyahoga County, they have to put out in the community over 30,000 piece of equipment. That's a distribution nightmare."

While the machines have a battery backup in case of a power outage, other things can go wrong.

"If something happens when the machine is malfunctioning, let's say it's a non-battery-power issue. What are you going to vote on in the precinct then? Paper ballots," Williams says. "Well hell, if you're gonna go paper, then we might as well start there."

Prove yourself
Less technical for voters is the requirement to prove who you say you are.

The Ohio American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is doing its part to make sure voters won't be blocked from casting ballots by explaining options for meeting the voter identification requirement. In addition to distributing their Ohio Voter Empowerment Card via their Web site ( index.htm), the ACLU is sending out e-mails with the information.

Voters must provide proof of identity in the form of either a current, valid photo ID or a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck or other government document that shows name and current address.

Those who do not have identification can provide the last four digits of their social security numbers and cast provisional ballots.

Those who don't want to provide social security numbers may swear affidavits and cast provisional ballots. However, a voter must then provide identification to the board of elections within 10 days for it to be counted.

Casting a provisional ballot means filling out an envelope with your current address so that the board of elections can check to make sure you really live there and verify that you haven't voted in another location before it counts your vote.

Voters who can't make it to the polls Nov. 7 can request absentee ballots via mail up until the Saturday before the election, in this case Nov. 4. Or they can go to the board of elections at 824 Broadway downtown and cast absentee ballots until 5 p.m. Monday.

Being prepared to cast a ballot is the most important part of the process, according to Williams.

"Voting is a right, and then there's a responsibility and the responsibility to educate yourself," he says. "Do research prior to Election Day. The language on the ballot is fairly long, so it's a good idea not to be looking that at that for the first time."

For more information about the issues on the ballot, visit