"Who benefited the most were the voting equipment companies," says Jackie Winchester, supervisor of elections in Palm Beach for nearly a quarter-century until 1996. "It seems like an awful lot of money to be spent. I don't know how much it's improved elections."
For the first time this year, touch-screen machines are on the decline — the result of changes in Florida, California, Ohio and elsewhere. That follows an effort by advocacy groups that for years have said the machines could be hacked or manipulated, and nobody would be the wiser without a paper trail. There is no evidence, however, of that happening in an election.
"Touch screens were definitely a mistake," says Dan McCrea, president of the Florida Voters Foundation. "They were electronic ballots. They were vapor."
That's not how others see it.
"A lot of the conspiracy theorists got to the voters," says Pamela Goodman, president of Palm Beach County League of Women Voters. "There was a big lack of voter confidence."
The return to paper ballots gives voters something tangible to handle, even though the scanners that read them rely on similar technology.
Many specialists, such as Glenn Newkirk of InfoSENTRY in North Carolina, say the machines usually aren't the problem — it's human error.
The federal law "put a tremendous amount of money into technical solutions, where there might not have been technical problems," Newkirk says.
Back to paper ballots
One of the first officials to turn against the touch-screen machines was New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson in 2006. The Democratic governor was followed by Crist, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen and Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner.
This year, touch-screen machines remain in use in 26 states, nine of them statewide. But optical-scan systems are more prevalent: They're in use in 41 states, including 17 statewide. That concerns Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, a research and consulting firm.
"American voters seem to know how to foul up their ballot, particularly if they are voting on a piece of paper," Brace says.
What's clear is that both systems are imperfect. In Horry County, S.C., in January, election officials failed to properly prepare some touch-screen machines in 80% of the precincts, and many ran out of backup paper ballots.
Two months later in Ohio, memory cards used in touch-screen and optical-scan systems dropped hundreds of votes while being uploaded to computer servers in at least 11 counties.
Pennsylvania Secretary of State Pedro Cortés, whose state has "10 different voting systems," says much of the money spent has been squandered. "History will surely show that, for many states, the investment didn't quite pan out," he says.
Since 2000, no state has had as many problems as Ohio, where long lines formed in 2004.
Secretary of State Brunner wishes counties had never purchased touch-screen machines. She wants to move the state to optical-scan systems, but only four counties have made the switch since 2006. Fifty-three others continue to use touch screens; Brunner has required that they have paper ballots as backups on Tuesday in case machines break down, lines grow long or voters insist on paper.
"Money's definitely been wasted" under the 2002 federal law, she says, because Congress urged states and counties to move too fast. "It's something that needed to happen probably more gradually and with better planning."