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Next week's primary in Ohio may decide the Democratic nomination but the results might be delayed. That's because the state is making major changes in the way its residents cast ballots, especially in its most populous county, Cuyahoga.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

(Soundbite of machine scanning paper ballots)

PAM FESSLER: Paper ballots flip through an optical scan machine in a Cleveland warehouse - part of the almost daily testing here to make sure things go smoothly on Tuesday.

Cuyahoga County's election director Jane Platten is preparing for every contingency.

Ms. JANE PLATTEN (Election Director, Cuyahoga County): The other day, I'm sitting here thinking I'm like, oh God, it's going to be damp and it's going to be cold. We need to test cold, damp ballots.

FESSLER: So she had her staff stick a box of ballots outside before running them again through the machines. They've also ripped ballots and spilled coffee on them - anything to anticipate what might gum up the works. And Platten has reason for concern - the county had to completely revamp its voting system from electronic touch-screen machines to paper over the past two months on orders from Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. That's because Cuyahoga had huge voting problems in 2004 and 2006, including lost memory cards and challenged results.

Ms. JENNIFER BRUNNER (Secretary of State, Ohio): We've been through so much in this county. Anything that we can test to prevent bad things from happening is the way that we should do it now.

FESSLER: And the effort has been extraordinary. Six thousand punch card machines were taken out of storage and retrofitted so voters can basically use them as desks for marking their paper ballots. More than 4,000 different ballot types were prepared and 7,000 poll workers had to be trained on an entirely new system.

Ms. SANDRA BISHOP (Poll Instructor, Cuyahoga County): I don't want you to guess. I want you to do it by according to what the book says. Treat that like it's your bible right there…

FESSLER: Instructor Sandra Bishop watches as teams of workers practice shutting down electronic voting machines. Some still have to be available for blind and disabled voters.

Ms. BISHOP: Then you remove your supervisor card, you unlock them…

FESSLER: As these poll workers get their last minute directions, voters stream into another part of the board of elections building to cast absentee ballots. Residents have been encouraged to vote early to avoid long lines.

Candice Hoke is director of the Center for Election Integrity at Cleveland State University. She thinks the county is doing a good job so far, but she says there are bound to be problems - there always are.

Ms. CANDICE HOKE (Director, Center for Election Integrity, Cleveland State University): Will there be errors particularly at the polling locations? Likely. Logistics? Probably. We've gotten better and better, but that's still going to be a challenge.

FESSLER: Her biggest worry is a plan to pick up ballots in the middle of the day. The county wants to get a jumpstart in counting votes because scanning all that paper takes time. In fact, no one expects results until Wednesday. But Hoke says collecting ballots midday means some polling places will have to shutdown, no matter how briefly.

Ms. HOKE: Voting cessation, voting interruption, and possibly disenfranchising voters who can't stay - that is a huge concern.

FESSLER: Also of concern is whether voters fill in their paper ballots correctly. The county didn't have enough time to purchase optical scan machines for each polling place, which would have helped to detect errors in time for a voter to correct them.

Ms. JOCELYN TRAVIS (Director, Ohio Votes): Which is why you've got to check over your ballot very carefully before you submit it.

FESSLER: Jocelyn Travis is director of Ohio Votes, which helps nonprofit groups guide their clients through the voting system. She is trying to get the word out: Fill in the ovals, don't circle them. And don't vote for more than one candidate per race or your vote will be rejected.

Ms. TRAVIS: Know what's on the ballot. Know that if you have any questions or problems, there's someone inside that can assist you. And there are also volunteers on the outside ready to assist you.

FESSLER: In fact, teams of voting rights attorneys will be in Cuyahoga County next week monitoring the polls. But the changes aren't confined to Cuyahoga. Secretary of State Brunner instructed election officials around the state to provide paper ballots to any voter who requests one. She thinks electronic voting machines are too insecure and wants them gone by November. Not everyone's happy with the switch to paper, but Brunner told a town hall meeting in Akron this week, she's trying to avoid another voting meltdown.

Ms. BRUNNER: What ever happens in Cuyahoga seems to reflect on the rest of the state of Ohio and I want my state to be successful, and I want the rest of the country to quit looking at Ohio as a pariah.

FESSLER: And she knows that a smooth vote on Tuesday is the key.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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