Voting equipment changes could get messy on Nov. 4

Eight years after confusion over a punch-card "butterfly ballot" here helped put George W. Bush in the White House, election officials have tried just about everything else.

In 2004, they switched to touch-screen machines. The cost: $16 million. But there was no printed record of votes, which raised suspicions about the tallies. So the electronic machines were scrapped.

This year, for $7 million more, progress means a step back in time — using paper and No. 2 pencils. The ballots are fed through optical scanners, then preserved on metal shelves in a county warehouse for at least 22 months.

Today is the sixth anniversary of the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which was designed to upgrade states' voting equipment. But officials here and across the nation aren't so sure the broad changes inspired by Bush's disputed victory over Democrat Al Gore in 2000 have helped improve the way America votes.

As Tuesday's election approaches, what they know is that it has cost $2 billion, confounded election administrators and left voters facing new challenges.

"We know that on Nov. 4, voting systems will fail somewhere," says Lawrence Norden, director of voting technology at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. "There is no perfect system. All of these systems have problems."

More than 40% of the nation's registered voters live in areas that have switched equipment since the 2004 presidential election. Since 2000, the figure is 68%. That increases the chance of human error in tabulating election results, because voters and poll workers are less familiar with each new method of voting.

Long lines, machine breakdowns and mistakes by voters and poll workers have plagued the run-up to this year's historic election, at a time when more than 30 states are having early voting periods to try to boost turnout and reduce logjams at the polls on Election Day.

In 2006, some machines in Ohio didn't work, and some technicians didn't show up or couldn't fix them. In this year's primaries, precincts from California to the District of Columbia ran out of paper ballots, and more poll workers were needed.

In recent months, registration databases required by the new federal law have come under scrutiny as election officials compare voters' identifications with motor vehicle and Social Security records. The matching process has led to lawsuits as voters' registrations are challenged.

Some of the money Congress spread among states and counties has improved the staffing and procedures at election administration offices. But two-thirds of it went for new equipment, even though federal standards for such equipment had not been set.

In many cases, the quick shift in voting systems have confused voters and poll workers.

"Americans were hellbent, I would say insistent, that voting systems change and change immediately," says Rosemary Rodriguez, chairwoman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, created under federal law to guide state officials. "I think Congress responded to that."

However, some states' rapid switching from one voting system to another under the federal law has left election officials and outside experts miffed.

"Ever since 2000, it's been knee-jerk reactions," says Kathy Dent, supervisor of elections in Florida's Sarasota County, where touch-screen machines didn't record a choice by 18,000 voters in a hotly contested congressional race in 2006.

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