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Ohio's voting systems tested by big turnout

Tuesday, November 4, 2008 | 11:27 a.m. CST

CLEVELAND—Long lines but few major problems greeted voters Tuesday in Ohio, where a record 80 percent turnout is possible in a swing state that had presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama running neck and neck.

Lines began forming outside polling places more than an hour before the polls opened at 6:30 a.m. A line of at least 50 people waited to cast their ballots at a polling location inside a car dealership in the Columbus suburb of Grove City.

But polls around the state opened on time and there were no reports of major problems, said Jeff Ortega, a spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, who oversees elections in the state.

A handful of voting machines malfunctioned in Fairfield County, southeast of Columbus, and the wrong paper ballots were delivered to two precincts, said elections director Debbie Henderly.

"Everybody's back to normal, now, I think," she said. "As normal as anybody can be for this day."

Officials in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, said thousands of people took advantage of early voting, reducing the number of Election Day voters to manageable levels.

The county has a history of voting problems, including long lines and lengthy vote counts, but the early going Tuesday was smooth, said elections director Jane Platten. Problems with fewer than 25 vote scanners were quickly fixed, she said.

Platten said three polling places opened as much as 10 minutes late, but no voters were turned away. She also said about 2 percent of the county's 8,599 poll workers failed to show up for work, but that was better than a 20 percent no-show in recent elections. In addition, she said a couple of precincts mistakenly handed out only one page of a two-page ballot, but the problem was resolved immediately.

In Canton, one voter complained that she received only one page of a two-page ballot. The board of elections sent crews out to make sure poll workers were giving out both pages.

In Knox County northeast of Columbus, one precinct's three voting machines were taking presidential votes for independent Ralph Nader but no other candidates. The machines were reset and back in operation by 9:30 a.m.

Shanna Sheline, 30, a dance instructor and office assistant from Cleveland, said she wasn't taking any chances. She got in line at 6:30 a.m. and set aside the whole day to vote if she encountered long lines or other problems.

In Westlake, an upscale suburb west of Cleveland, there appeared to be confusion among voters, some of whom were seeing for the first time the return of old-fashioned paper ballots that replaced touch-screen voting machines used for the March primary.

Voters at the Church on the Rise in Westlake had a lot of questions about the paper ballots, according to Bob Mihocik, 59, who voted along with his wife, Jackie, and son, Dave, 26.

The paper ballots require voters to choose a candidate by filling in an oval. After finishing, the ballot is scanned to alert the voter to disqualifying duplicate votes - like voting for both McCain and Obama. If that happens, the voter can ask for a replacement ballot.

The opportunity to correct voter errors was a key reason the touch-screen voting machines were dumped in favor of traditional paper ballots, which are lengthy in Cuyahoga County and require more handling.

Cuyahoga County is one of 35 Ohio counties where voters cast ballots on paper. The other 53 counties use touch-screen machines.

There was early evidence that poll workers would have their hands full with a big turnout.

"We had a line out the door before we opened the poll," said Bud Tetzlaff, a poll worker at the Church on the Rise. He estimated there were 50 people waiting in line in the first hour of voting and it was taking people 10 to 15 minutes to vote.

In Columbus, the Franklin County elections board was dealing with typical early Election Day glitches, like jammed backup paper tapes on voting machines and poll workers with last-minute questions, spokesman Ben Piscitelli said. "We're taking care of things like that this morning," Piscitelli said. "But there's nothing major or systemic."

Long lines were expected despite about 1.5 million people taking advantage of early voting. Court action was anticipated to keep polls open late in places like Cleveland, the seat of a county that has been plagued by past elections problems.

Across the state, lawyers were standing by to contest yet-uncounted votes. Both Republican and Democratic lawyers were at the ready to file lawsuits over any perceived illegal activity.

Likewise, volunteers from both campaigns were set to stand near polling locations to hear complaints, and independent advocacy groups vowed to monitor any irregularities.

Four years ago, the presidential race hinged on Ohio and many activists questioned the results. Democrat John Kerry narrowly lost the state's 20 electoral votes, putting President Bush over the top in the electoral count.

Bush won by about 118,000 votes out of more than 5.5 million cast in Ohio. Kerry conceded the day after the election, convinced he would not receive enough votes when provisional ballots were counted.

Ohio made changes this year, including putting more voting machines in precincts that are expected to be the busiest. Franklin County has about twice as many touch-screen voting machines this year as it did in 2004.


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