Hanging Chads Plus 8, Voting Mishaps Continue

Billions were spent for new voting machines, but some voters won't see them.

Oct. 31, 2008— -- Retired bank president Christine Jennings of Sarasota, Fla., is optimistic about her chances in the 13th District congressional race.

An early voting poll shows her ahead, but she is worried about those electronic voting machines that a third of the country is using this year.

"There are too, too many things that can go wrong with them," she told "20/20."

She's skeptical because two years ago, Jennings ran for and lost the same congressional seat. She got the most votes, but the machines in her hometown recorded thousands of ballots that registered no vote on election night.

She lost by a razor-thin margin.

"We were horrified," Jennings said, "because it was so obvious that something was wrong."

In the uproar that followed, Florida moved away from those machines.

"It was an experience that I hope to never repeat and I hope no other candidate ever goes through it," she said.

After every recent election cycle, stories about electronic voting machine problems abound. This year is no exception.

In West Virginia, early voters say their votes for Barack Obama were flipped to John McCain.

The Mess That HAVA Created

The Rev. DeForest Soaries was the first chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, an agency created after Florida's 2000 hanging chad fiasco.

"It's the fault of a system run by, essentially, the federal government, which has failed to invest properly in democracy," he said.

The mess in Florida led to a lot of plans, laws and agencies meant to prevent reoccurrences. In addition to the EAC, the federal government passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002 to replace punch-card voting systems and create uniform administration standards.

"But when you really look at the Help America Vote Act, what you discover is that the Election Assistance Commission was put in place not to fix the problem but to sign checks," Soaries said.

It was the reverend who sent those checks to states to replace their outdated paper voting systems with new electronic machines after Congress ordered the change to happen immediately.

"I was forced to send $2.3 billion to the 50 states to buy equipment, even though the equipment was not ready to be bought," Soaries said. "There were no standards, there was no prototype."

'Politicians Don't Care'

Soaries said the commission begged Congress to let it do the research to develop a reliable prototype before any money was sent to the states but was denied.

"The politicians don't care," he said. "Washington believes that the machines can't be that bad because, after all, it produced them. So if they won the race, how bad can the machine be?"

They were bad enough that California, Florida, New Mexico and Maryland decided they didn't want to use the machines they bought with federal money.

Other states will still be use them Tuesday, but Soaries said he's horrified that he spent your tax money on unproven machines.

"If I say what I see, I could undermine people's desire to vote," he said. "If I don't say what I see, then I'm a hypocrite."

So he resigned in April 2005, 15 months into his four-year term.

Today the Election Assistance Commission is chaired by Rosemary Rodriguez. She says there are now safeguards in place -- like paper ballot backups, better pre-election testing of the machines, and provisional voting -- in case voters have problems.

When presented with the theory that ATMs work just fine and voting machines don't, she theorized that "a bank is going to make sure that the system works -- that it's got to be fail-safe, right, because -- there's money involved."

But democracy is involved with voting as well as money -- the machine makers want to make a reliable product that turns a profit.

Giving Up

Howard Van Pelt ran a company that a few years ago, developed a new technology called the WinVote machine.

"It was the first product in the marketplace that was wireless, and we were very, very proud of that innovation," he said.

But when Van Pelt needed to upgrade his software, he says the EAC made it impossible, burning through his money by changing its standards, swamping him with paperwork, creating delays.

"The certification process that the EAC has is so onerous that it's a businessman's nightmare," he said.

State and local governments certify systems, but so far the EAC hasn't certified any.

"You're probably wondering what's taking us so long," Rodriguez said. "It's very stringent, thorough and a program that we are hoping will become the gold standard for voting equipment in this country."

But the process was so long and costly that Van Pelt's innovation died on the vine. He didn't want to give up. VanPelt didn't want to wait. But he closed his company down and gave up, claiming it was too tough to deal with the government.

"I gave up and I was the government," Soaries said. "Of course you'd give up. If no one can tell you what standards your products should meet, why would you invest in creating a product to market to an industry that's confused about itself?"

Rodriguez said the EAC isn't looking to drive anyone out of business, but it's looking for equipment that's reliable.

"We're building a program for the future," she said.

When will the future come? It's been eight years since the hanging chads. This year the EAC recommends that you allow extra time to vote, since there might be problems.