Election watchdog panel holds first public hearing

But critics say it's too late to ensure no repeat of '00

May 06, 2004|By Tamara Lytle | Tamara Lytle,ORLANDO SENTINEL

WASHINGTON - Three and a half years after Florida's election-night chaos left the 2000 presidential election in doubt, the federal commission that was ordered to fix the mess finally had its first public hearing yesterday.

But with less than six months before November's general election, critics say, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission is far too late to ensure this year's presidential balloting is any better.

"There's really nothing they can do for 2004," said Robert Ferraro of the nonpartisan Campaign for Verifiable Voting Congress. His group created the commission as part of the $3.9 billion Help America Vote Act of 2002 to make sure the problems that beset the 2000 election - including Florida's punch-card voting system and chaotic recount - don't happen again.

But Congress and President Bush didn't appoint its four members until late last year.

The commission was earmarked for $10 million in funding to advise states on how to modernize outdated and unreliable voting systems. So far, the commission has been given just $1.2 million. Its offices opened only in recent weeks, its first organizational meeting didn't happen until late March and its Web site went online Tuesday.

Until yesterday's hearing, the commission hadn't addressed the latest controversy swirling around the new electronic voting methods many localities have adopted in the aftermath of the 2000 election: Are such machines vulnerable to fraud?

"The most important thing is that the votes are counted and we can rely on that count," said Matt Holland of True Majority voter group. Yet, he said, the election commission's late start leaves it "hopelessly behind." Florida, Georgia and Maryland have overhauled their state voting systems. But many states are using the same technology as in 2000 - including the notorious punch cards.

Some states have switched to controversial touch-screen electronic voting equipment similar to a bank's cash machine. Most of those, including all the touch-screen machines Florida will use in November, produce no paper record of votes.

Ferraro's and Holland's groups favor a federal standard that all electronic machines produce a paper receipt that the voter can look at to make sure his intent is recorded properly.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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