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Paper ballots likely to replace touchscreen voting for many area voters

County election boards across Ohio are preparing to buy a new generation of voting machines, and although it’s unclear what systems will be chosen, it’s becoming more likely that tens of thousands of voters in southwest Ohio will fill out paper ballots rather than voting on touchscreens as soon as the May election.

“It could be a departure for the polling locations,” said Jan Kelly, Montgomery County Board of Elections director. “They really aren’t like what we have now.”

Voters in Montgomery County along with those in Butler, Darke, Greene and Miami counties and 36 others, currently use DRE machines, or direct-recording electronic voting machines that have touchscreens. But as election officials work now to get new systems online and proven before the 2020 presidential election, no DRE machine has been certified for use in Ohio, according to officials.

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That leaves many counties looking at a switch to paper ballots and optical-scanning equipment to count ballots, or hybrid systems coming at more than twice the price that employ touchscreens to mark a paper ballot.

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Nationwide, 47 percent of American registered voters in November 2016 lived in jurisdictions using only optical-scan technology that requires voters to fill in bubbles, complete arrows or make other machine-readable marks on paper; 28 percent lived in DRE-only jurisdictions; another 19 percent lived in jurisdictions where both were used, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Verified Voting Foundation data.

Area voters in Champaign, Clark, Clinton, Preble and Warren counties already use paper ballots, but those in others, including Miami County, could be in for a change – perhaps one they don’t prefer, said Beverly Kendall, the Miami County elections board director.

“I think people like the new technology, and they would like to stay with some sort of touchscreen,” Kendall said.

But of the three systems the Miami County Board of Elections is considering to replace 445 machines, two require paper ballots. The third is a hybrid system that would have a touchscreen. But the decision will come down to cost, she said.

“The board wants to have some firm quotes from some of the vendors now that the money is available,” she said. “We will go back and look at choices and narrow them down to see what they can get for the money.”

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Counties will receive a share of $114.5 million from a bill signed last week by Gov. John Kasich.

The County Commissioners Association of Ohio and the Ohio Association of Elections Officials estimated it would cost the counties altogether roughly $116 million to purchase optical-scan equipment and $267 million for hybrids.

It could take up to $8 million to replace Montgomery County’s more than 2,100 DRE voting machines with new technology. The county should receive a little more than half that from the state — $4.2 million to $4.5 million, Kelly said.

The Ohio Secretary of State has certified systems from five main vendors, all of which demonstrated their equipment for Montgomery County in June. The county plans to have new machines by the May 2019 election and has picked its top two choices, but Kelly won’t divulge which ones.

It’s possible Montgomery County will purchase two types of voting machines, a hybrid with a screen for early voting at the Board of Elections office while those who vote at their precincts will cast votes on paper with a marker, Kelly said.

“Probably at the polls we will be looking at paper,” she said. “It really comes down to what the board members decide. They are the ones that make the ultimate decision.”

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Greene County also wants to replace its DRE machines with new before the 2020 presidential election when turnout is much larger, but the county is biding its time, said Llyn McCoy, Greene County Board of Elections director.

McCoy said there’s an outside chance a DRE system will yet be certified.

“We are taking a wait-and-see approach this time just to see what’s out there and maybe let some other counties get the bugs worked out like we did before,” she said. “If we would have to go to optical scan, it would be a change for us, but we are not sure at this point that is indeed what we’ll have to do.”

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