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.

Federal investigators found voters overlooked the open-seat race, won by 369 votes by Republican Vern Buchanan, because of poor ballot design.

Fears that the machines had made votes disappear led Florida's GOP governor, Charlie Crist, to push through a state law last year mandating their replacement.

Today, proponents and opponents of touch-screen machines agree on one thing: Decisions to buy them, only to discard them later, were a waste of money.

"The rush to electronic machines and the belief that the newest technology would cure the electoral ills was hasty, that is for sure," says Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., who led the fight to eliminate touch-screen voting in Florida. "As a result, you cannot help but conclude that money was wasted."

The new system in Palm Beach County — dubbed ground zero of the 2000 election recount in Florida that gave Bush a 537-vote win statewide and sealed his Electoral College victory — got its first test during a state primary in August.

About 3,500 paper ballots were "lost" and later found right where they belonged, resulting in seven recounts before a judicial race was decided.

"The joke was we now have a paper trail, we just can't find it," says Brad Merriman, the assistant county administrator who was handed supervision of elections just days before the 2000 fiasco. Now, he'd just as soon turn back the clock, at least halfway.

"The touch screens were perfect. We never had any scandals," Merriman says, even without a paper trail.

August's primary in Palm Beach had 102,000 voters. Next week's will have about 700,000, voting at 783 precincts in 450 polling places with 185 different ballot styles.

If memory cards or scanners fail or a recount is required, 1.4 million pieces of paper may not bring peace of mind.

"The more paper we get involved with, the more likely that we're going to see error," says Barry Cohen, the judge who heads the county's elections canvassing board. "A better designed punch card might have been the best solution."

A rush to 'technical solutions'

When President Bush signed the Help America Vote Act into law on Oct. 29, 2002, it was viewed as the antidote for the electoral meltdown of 2000.

Armed with federal money, states and counties ditched punch cards and lever machines for optically scanned paper ballots and touch-screen machines.

Traditional lever machines are expensive to store, maintain and transport, and sensitive to humidity. Punch cards often emerge with dimpled, pregnant or hanging "chads," making it hard to divine voters' intent.

The number of voters using punch cards gradually dropped from 31% of all voters in 2000 to a fraction of 1%, represented by eight Idaho counties. Those using lever machines declined from 17% to 7% — all New Yorkers.

"The Democrats in Congress were determined to get rid of punch cards," recalls Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., who fought unsuccessfully to set standards first. They believed Bush had been "illegally elected," he says.

On the flip side, the use of touch-screen machines soared from 12% of voters in 2000 to 22% in 2002, 29% in 2004 and 38% in 2006. Those using optical scanners rose from 30% to 50% in the same six-year span.

It wasn't cheap.

The U.S. government coughed up $3 billion, and states added some of their own money. More than $1 billion remains to be spent. Even so, states such as New Mexico and Ohio, where multiple systems were bought and discarded, soon ran out of federal money.

"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."

In New York, which is under a consent order to comply with the federal law, officials are happy with their lever machines, a system in use since the 1800s. "They've proven themselves over 100 years," says Robert Brehm of the state Board of Elections.

Eight counties in Idaho, meanwhile, are the lone holdouts with punch cards, which they can keep because they didn't take federal money to replace them.

"If it's not broke, I don't see a reason to fix it," says Ron Longmore, county clerk in Bonneville, which includes Idaho Falls. All that's needed is to clean the area where chads fall, he says.

'From one disaster to another'

Here at the ground zero of voting controversy, journalists from Britain and Brazil, Russia and the Middle East tour the site of the Great Electoral Meltdown of 2000. Reporters descend on early voters such as Karen Backus, who says she tried to vote for Gore eight years ago, but the poorly designed butterfly ballot gave her vote to Pat Buchanan.

Backus, 66, waited 45 minutes last week to vote. After using a pencil to fill in broken arrows on her ballot and feeding the ballot through a scanner, she felt confident her vote would count.

But Al Kaplan had to wait an extra half-hour for a malfunctioning printer to spit out his ballot. An ex-New Yorker like many of his neighbors, Kaplan, 77, yearns for the lever machines of his youth. "I don't think they've made any strides," he says.

Officials are confident the system can withstand a tsunami of voters that already has begun at 11 early voting sites around the county. All the scanners have passed their accuracy tests, and new procedures — along with yellow police tape — are in place to prevent lost ballots.

Merriman, who helped the county earn $250,000 by selling its punch-card machines as souvenirs on eBay, is praying for anonymity next week. Then he can get back to his other duties, like supervising the county's response to hurricanes.

"I kind of float from one disaster to another," he says. "I just hope this election won't be one."

The fight to vote

What could go wrong on Election Day? Here's what to look for:

Sources: Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law; Common Cause; Pew Center on the States; and USA TODAY research

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