When Hardin County replaces its lever voting machines with electronic ones on Nov. 2, the board of elections will be relaxed but ready should any problems arise, its director says.

A federal mandate to replace punch-card voting machines with electronic devices has fizzled to the point that only four of Ohio's 88 counties will consider the idea for this year, the secretary of state's office said Thursday.

The four counties — Hardin, Lorain, Mercer and Trumbull — must decide after the state completes a test of the machines, made by North Canton-based Diebold Inc. The tests should be completed by July 19, said Carlo LoParo, a spokesman for Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell.

Initially, up to 31 counties were prepared to switch from punch cards and lever voting devices to electronic machines, but the number has dwindled to four. The rest of the state must complete the conversion to electronic machines by the 2006 primary election.

The original deadline set by the federal Help America Vote Act (search) was the Nov. 2 election, but Blackwell received a waiver because of security questions.

Those questions don't bother Anne Boston, the Hardin County board's director since 1992. The 88 electronic machines will replace lever machines that have been in use for 34 years. The county has about 18,000 registered voters.

"We wouldn't be going forward if we had any fears. We will have extra programmed machines to take out if anything happens," Boston said. "Diebold will have rovers (technicians) and we will have local people who are savvy with electronic equipment."

Most of the 27 counties that backed off commitments to this year's election did so after the Legislature approved a requirement that the machines be fitted with devices that produce a voter-verifiable paper audit trail by 2006, LoParo said. Blackwell claimed the devices were not needed.

The testing completion target date leaves the four counties 106 days to train poll workers and educate voters about the new machines.

Boston said she has concerns about the publicity surrounding security of the Diebold machines but not about the machines themselves. "You just have to follow the directions," she said.

A security check conducted for Blackwell's office found 57 potential risks in the machines and software supplied by Diebold and two other state-approved vendors. The contractor conducting the tests described them as minor and correctible.

The 106-day period should be enough time for worker training and voter education, said Michael Sciortino, director of the Mahoning County Board of Elections. The board switched from optical scanning machines to electronic machines in 2001, beginning in the March primary in Youngstown and countywide in the general election.

Boston will have machines at the Hardin County Fair on Sept. 7-12 so voters can get familiar with them. Sciortino said he used bingo halls, bowling alleys and other gathering spots for demonstrations.

Meanwhile, lawyers representing the ACLU said Thursday the group would proceed this month with a lawsuit against the state that seeks to dump the punch-card machines.

The activist group said punch cards are mistake-prone and rob some people of their right to vote, especially in counties with large minority populations. The trial, in which Blackwell and the state are defendants, begins July 26 in U.S. District Court in Akron.

The ACLU suit seeks the removal of all punch-card ballots in Ohio in time for this year's presidential election. The ACLU argues that punch-card ballots are prevalent in counties with large black populations and the number of errors found on ballots turned in by blacks contain more errors than those turned in by whites.

Educational inequalities between the races could be the cause, said Dan Tokaji, a lawyer representing the ACLU in the case. "It's the technological version of a literacy test," he said.

Arthur Marziale, the state's senior deputy attorney general, said Ohio is in full compliance with state and federal law.

"We're going to have the battle of experts here. The ACLU has not demonstrated that one person in the state of Ohio, using punch-card ballots, was denied the right to vote," Marziale said.