Build a better voting machine and the world will beat a path to your door. But whenever an election comes along, the political machines will still cry foul.
And they'll be right.
"There's never going to be one quick, neat and tidy tech fix to the problems we've been seeing over and over again," says Deborah M. Phillips, chairwoman of the Voting Integrity Project, a national nonpartisan voter rights organization. "Fraud in elections is as American as apple pie, and so are problems relating to the various voting systems. They're never going to completely go away."
No one is more painfully aware of that than George W. Bush and Al Gore, who in the heart of the digital age are locked in a presidential battle that has come down to paper "chads" and dimpled ballots. About a third of the country's polling places still use the punch card systems that have caused so much grief in Florida, and another 20 percent use mechanical, lever-based machines that often are so old that the technicians qualified to service them are dead.
"One of our biggest competitors is tradition," said Larry Ensminger, head of Global Election Systems Inc., one of the country's largest voting machine distributors. "Once a lot of these places get a voting system they like, they don't want to change it."
But the confusion over Florida's presidential election count may change that thinking. "We're hoping business will go up," he said.
At least 26 other manufacturers of voting systems share the same hope. Together, they offer 3,200 voting jurisdictions an array of hardware and software tailored to their budgets and voting requirements.
The Constitution gives states and municipalities the power to run elections, which means that standards for voting machines vary from place to place. And for much of the nation's history, the process of testing voting machines and ballot-counting systems was completely haphazard.
"Few states had any guidelines for testing and evaluating these devices, so local officials either had to take the salesman's word for it or else depend on the opinion of colleagues," according to the Federal Election Commission's Web site. "Voting equipment horror stories ... soon began circulating."
By the mid-1970s, Congress was concerned enough to order the FEC and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to develop standards. More than 30 states, including Maryland, Florida and New York, have since adopted these voluntary guidelines, which include suggestions for protecting machines and training poll workers. But those guidelines haven't changed since 1990, while technology has moved on.
While Maryland had few problems this time around, Linda H. Lamone, who runs the State Administrative Board of Elections, is worried because many of the state's 23 counties are nearing the end of their voting machine leases.
"The standards we have now aren't good enough," Lamone said. "We need new standards so the new voting equipment we're contemplating purchasing or leasing makes sense."
In 19 Maryland counties, voters use felt-tip pens to mark paper ballots, which they insert in optical scanners on the spot.
These systems are generally well-regarded. They won't, for example, allow voters to check two candidates for the same office. Those ballots are rejected immediately, giving voters a chance to cast a new one.
In some Florida counties, where punch card systems tabulate votes after the polls close, thousands of inadvertently double-marked ballots were invalidated without voters' knowledge. Three Maryland counties - Prince George's, Dorchester, and Allegany - use mechanical lever machines. Baltimore City uses a $6 million system of electronic push-button machines, while Montgomery County uses punch card ballots similar to those used in Florida's disputed Palm Beach County.
"The country is really getting an education in voting systems - and maybe it's a good idea," said Doris J. Suter, Baltimore County's election administrator.
Baltimore County leases its Optech III-P Eagle scanning system - the most widely used in Maryland - from Elections Systems & Software Inc. of Omaha, Neb. The scanner requires voters to complete an arrow pointing toward the candidate's name using a felt-tip marker.
Suter said there was some confusion when the system was installed four years ago, and some voters still complain because the cubbies in which they mark their ballots aren't as private as the old voting machines. But overall, the scanners have performed well.
"I can't find fault with the system," she said. "The problem is that the ballots are too heavy, and we have to find someplace to store them. They take up a lot of room."
What machines come next is unclear, both for Suter and the rest of the country. Less than 10 percent of the country uses the newest type of closed-computer voting machine, which offers a touch screen much like those in bank ATM systems.