Changes in Voting Technology Raise Concerns About Presidential Election

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''I think we might easily see at least a partial repeat of the 2000 debacle,'' said Floyd F. Feeney, a professor at the University of California, Davis School of Law, who specializes in election law and initiatives.

The major cause of the problems that plagued Election 2000 was the closeness of the race, said Mr. Feeney, who believes there is a slight chance this race might also be close. Another important cause of the 2000 election problems, he said, was the inadequacy of the Florida election law and administration to deal with the situation, particularly having a political partisan in the position of Secretary of State.



''Some of these problems have been solved in Florida and other states but many remain. Many of the battleground states still have partisan officials in charge of the statewide election procedure,'' Mr. Feeney said. ''Some states have improved their election laws since 2000, but I doubt that any are truly ready for the kind of problems that the new technology will bring.''

Spurred by a nightmarish Election 2000 that was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, calls for election reform led to the ''Help America Vote Act,'' or ''HAVA,'' passed in 2002. The law was passed to address many of the problems from the 2000 election, and included funding for the replacement of outdated voting equipment, construction of statewide computerized voter-registration systems, and training of poll workers.

''The most successful system in 2000 was optical scanning, with machines in each precinct, so that voters could find and correct their errors,'' said Brian Kalt, a law professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Mr. Kalt said that almost all Michigan voters will use ''second-chance'' scan ballots this election.

''[Nationwide] there has been some shift to new technology. Basically, there are more optical scanners used, and lots of states have started using touch-screen machines. Other technologies, especially punch cards, have been correspondingly reduced,'' Mr. Kalt said.

So far, states have received about half of the $3.86 billion in federal grant money provided by HAVA. An overhaul of voting equipment has been slow to materialize due to money shortages and other delays, and major reforms are not expected to be complete until 2006. This Nov. 2, millions of voters will use the same machines they used in 2000. Nearly 30 percent will vote on punch-card and lever machines, according to election management services firm Election Data Services Inc. of Washington.

''I expect that we will see a lot of lost votes in this election, due to punch-card voting, registration glitches, provisional voting problems, and the ID requirement. About 4-6 million votes were lost in 2000, and the number may well be higher this year,'' said Daniel P. Tokaji, Assistant Professor of Law at The Ohio State University. Mr. Tokaji said that punch cards are still in use by 70% of voters in his state. Why does he think it will be higher this time?

Mr. Tokaji thinks the number of lost votes this election will be higher due to the surge in new voter registration and because of the problems many election officials may face due to the changes in state and federal law since 2000. Many believe provisional voting will be one of the major problems emerging from this election. As part of HAVA, states are required to provide standby ballots to voters not found on roll lists, are in the wrong polling location, or without proper identification. Voters will be given provisional ballots until their eligibility can be confirmed.

''We could see a repeat of 2000 this year if there are election problems in key battleground states, and such problems cast doubt on the outcome in those states,'' said Doug Chapin, Director of Electiononline.org which provides news and analysis on election reform. ''If there were to be a problem, I would expect provisional voting to be a key issue, given the states' different laws regarding such ballots and the lingering uncertainty about 'what the rules are' on Election Day.''

Though provisional ballots are not anything new for many states, about 17 states will be using provisional ballots for the first time, some of which are battleground states. The rules for provisional ballots vary from state to state, on who casts provisional ballots, how votes are counted and verified, and when a provisional ballot will count. The issue of provisional voting procedures has already come under legal challenge in key battleground states such as Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Michigan, and Missouri. Florida and Ohio have the strictest rules for provisional ballots.

Democrats and Republicans have recruited lawyers from across the country to monitor possible problems with provisional voting this election, where the next president could very well be decided on who receives the most valid provisional votes. Both parties have assembled armies of lawyers to monitor the voting process to ensure that nothing happens that could put their party at a disadvantage and cost them the election. The Kerry-Edwards campaign said it will have up to 10,000 lawyers in place by Election Day and five ''SWAT teams'' ready to go should problems arise in battleground states. The Bush-Cheney campaign said it is focusing on 30,000 precincts in 17 states seen as battleground states. Lawyers are preparing legal strategies for how to deal with technical and polling-place problems, the large numbers of absentee and overseas or military ballots in several states, and new voters at the polls. Lawsuits have already been filed by both parties over election procedures and voting equipment in many of the key states.

In an effort to safeguard voter rights this election, particularly minority voters, a coalition of more than 55 lawyer and minority groups have established Election Protection. The nonpartisan coalition will provide a toll-free national multilingual hotline to assist voters with registration, voting, and all other election-related questions. The coalition has also recruited 25,000 trained poll monitors, including 6,000 lawyers and law students, to monitor election problems and help voters on location at more than 3,500 African-American and Latino precincts in at least 17 states.

Meanwhile, the replacement of punch-card and lever machines with new electronic ''touch-screen'' voting equipment has spurred much debate over the security of new paperless-voting systems. Critics argue that such a system could easily be hacked into and should require paper confirmation of votes. About 45 million registered voters will use the e-voting machines in November, which will account for about 29% of votes, according to Election Data Services Inc.

''The main risk is that many voters may not trust the announced results, especially if the tallies on Election Day differ substantially from earlier polling data,'' said Matthew Franklin, professor of computer science at UC Davis. ''The manufacturers of some of these voting machines are saying, 'Just trust us,' but that is a poor principle of engineering design. Adding some kind of voter-verifiable paper printout is an obvious improvement.''

Mr. Franklin said he is optimistic that the margin of victory this election will less likely be small, leaving little room for a repeat of Election 2000. However, he does feel that beyond the election, legal battles may ensue over the validity of some of the voting machines, which he said may not be a bad thing. ''We might all benefit from a careful look in court at the engineering practices of some of the voting machine manufacturers.''

In the days leading up to Nov. 2, Americans and much of the world will continue to ponder whether this election will—in some form—be another Florida. ''The problems with paperless touch-screen machines is, I think, a real one,'' said Mr. Kalt. ''At the end of the day, though, I think that 2000 was a ''perfect storm.''

Michigan State University

    


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