December 11, 2004

Columbus Dispatch: 39 Voting Machines Unused, 17 Never Activated, in Inner-City Precincts

39 voting machines unused
17 never activated at inner-city precincts; officials not sure why

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Mark Niquette


In a development that came to light just this week, several extra Franklin County voting machines earmarked for Columbus’ inner-city polling places on Election Day never made it inside.

Officials can’t say exactly why, but they suggest the polls may have been closed or poll workers told those delivering the machines that they could get along with the ones they had.

The machines were among a group of 99 originally kept in reserve for emergencies. County Elections Director Matthew Damschroder said that the day before the election, he ordered that all 99 be sent to precincts where long lines were expected.

But 22 were left in the warehouse, and 17 of the 29 machines that officials tried to place on Election Day in inner-city precincts never were activated.

Damschroder said he learned the extent of the problem and other discrepancies this week — meaning officials have been giving the public wrong numbers on voting machines for the past 5½ weeks.

The issue of voting machines remains a hot topic because voters had waits of several hours at some polls. Some election critics also say precincts with predominantly Democratic or minority voters received too few machines while suburban areas didn’t.

Still, Damschroder noted the new information means that there were fewer unused machines than was thought, and he said none of the problems affect the election results.

He promised an internal review and changes if necessary to "prevent us from having the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing."

Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell’s office also plans an administrative review, spokesman Carlo LoParo said.

The state can make recommendations for improvements and, in cases where severe problems are found, place a county board under state administrative oversight, he said.

Thomas Rosenberg, a lawyer who helped monitor the election for the Kerry-Edwards campaign in Franklin County, called the revelations "disturbing" but said it’s too soon to jump to conclusions.

"We hope that it is nothing more than human beings made errors of judgment for which all we can do is take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again," he said.

Damschroder released a report after the election showing that the county had 2,798 machines placed in precincts by the time polls closed Nov. 2 and that 68 machines were kept in reserve in case there were problems. Critics questioned why so many voting devices went unused despite the heavy turnout.

But after a meeting this week with key staff members, it became clear that 2,818 machines were sent out and that only 22 reserve machines remained in the warehouse, Damschroder said.

Damschroder said the discrepancies occurred because information from the board’s warehouse about the placement of machines wasn’t communicated with Downtown office staff members when he prepared his report.

Still, questions remain about why all available machines were not sent to the polls and used as intended.

Based on Dispatch interviews with Damschroder, a Republican, and Michael Hackett, a Democrat who is the board’s deputy director, here’s what officials say happened with the unused machines:

Franklin County kept 99 voting machines in reserve when the other machines were delivered before the election, in case there was a serious accident or a problem with a truckload.

After all of the machines were safely delivered Nov. 1, Damschroder said he instructed staff members to send out all of the reserve machines.

A Democrat, the manager of election operations, makes the recommendations about where to place machines based on voter-registration totals, past voter turnout and sites where long lines are expected.

But records show only 44 of the reserve machines were delivered Nov. 1, and an additional four machines were placed on Election Day.

When election officials called the county warehouse on the afternoon of Election Day to see whether other machines were available, they were told that only 29 machines were there — when there were actually 51, Damschroder said.

He couldn’t explain why the wrong number was provided.

Workers then programmed counting cartridges for the 29 electronic machines to be sent to inner-city precincts. But 17 of those cartridges never were activated, meaning they were never used by voters, he said.

Damschroder acknowledged that the technicians hired to make repairs and deliver machines on Election Day said they tried to deliver all of the machines. In some cases, the polls were closed or workers said they weren’t needed.

That means 39 available machines were not used for voting: 22 remained in the warehouse and 17 were never activated, officials said.

Damschroder has said that instead of using repair technicians to deliver voting machines on Election Day, the board will consider using the contractor that makes the bulk deliveries of machines before the election.

That should allow machines to be placed more quickly, especially because it takes up to 90 minutes to program and prepare each machine for the ballot used in the specific precinct where it is sent.

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