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Flaws Remain In Election Systems

The presidential campaign season is underway, yet when voters go to the polls this year, the election systems in many states will still be susceptible to the same flaws that caused the 2000 stalemate in Florida.

A report released Thursday found that — despite promised reforms — only a few states made comprehensive changes to voting machines and registration in the last three years. The Washington-based Election Reform Information Project reported that money problems and concerns about the reliability of new, touchscreen voting systems delayed action.

It will be 2006, at the earliest, before voters nationwide see the kinds of sweeping improvements that policy-makers said were necessary after the 2000 election.

"The expectation for reform has outstripped reality," said Doug Chapin, director of the information project, a nonpartisan group that studies elections.

One problem: Federal money has been slow coming. Of $3.9 billion authorized in 2002, only $650 million has been distributed to states so far, half of that focused on planning. And Congress only appointed a federal oversight commission to handle doling out the money last month.

Adding to the inertia, computer scientists have raised doubts about the security of the touchscreen, ATM-style machines that federal law encourages for the disabled and which many states are considering for widespread use.

The report found that:

  • Punch cards will still be used in some jurisdictions in 22 states, despite the federal Help America Vote Act's encouragement to retire the equipment that was at the center of the Florida deadlock in 2000.
  • Statewide registration databases, which should eliminate the potential for fraud and for voters mistakenly being denied the chance to vote, are still a few years off. Forty-one states sought waivers to delay action on registration until 2006.

    While some polling places in 42 states will have new machines in place for the presidential contest, in many states that means small pilot programs in a few counties or towns, rather than wholesale improvements.

    Still, there were some changes. Georgia and Maryland switched to statewide touchscreen systems; Florida — the start of all the controversy — eliminating its punch cards; and large counties in California and Texas dropped punch cards, too.

    Yet in Marshall County, Iowa — north of Des Moines — disabled voters will have to wait a few more years for a voting machine that complies with the new federal law, said Dawn Williams, who oversees elections in the county.

    "I'm talking about money for voting machines, I'm talking about money for additional training, money for a statewide voter registration," Williams said. "It's pretty hard to do that without any money."

    "We've got everybody's hopes up, got everybody thinking we could make these quantum leaps," said Doug Lewis, who works with local and state election officials from across the country at the Election Center, a nonpartisan group in Houston, Texas. "We're stuck in inertia."

    A separate study on voting technologies showed how voting has changed so far, and much further it has to go. This year, a third of registered voters — if they choose to cast a ballot — will use older technology that reformers hope to phase out, while over half will be using the newer technology.

    That's an improvement, but not sweeping change. In 2000, 48.7 percent of registered voters had older punch cards and lever machines at their polling places, according to a preliminary analysis by Election Data Services Inc., a Washington-based consulting firm.

    This year, the newer technologies — touchscreens and optical scan equipment that uses paper ballots similar to SAT tests — will be in use for 56.6 percent of registered voters. That's up from 43 percent.

    "The changes that everybody wanted to happen just aren't happening," said Kimball Brace, president of EDS. "And it also raises the possibility that in a close election, we get another Florida-type situation."

    Still, the money promised from Washington is on its way. Another $1.5 billion is expected to be approved by Congress within the next few weeks.

    And one change will assure voters in all but five states a chance to vote, even if the validity of their registration is challenged at the polling place. Provisional ballots will be available, so a voter can still cast a ballot while their claim is investigated. If the registration is later discovered to be legitimate, their vote will count.

    That change alone is estimated to capture the choices of between 1.5 million and 3 million voters whose ballots were lost in the last election.

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