Don't be the next Florida

Voting: No battleground state in the election wants an issue akin to 2000's Bush-Gore recount, but change has been slow.

Election 2004: The Ballots

August 29, 2004|By MARGIE WYLE | MARGIE WYLE,NEWHOUSE NEWS SERVICE

WITH ONLY WEEKS until America chooses a president, elections officials in battleground states are crossing their fingers that the vote goes smoothly.

"Nobody wants to be the next Florida, not even Florida," said Anne Martens, spokeswoman for Oregon's secretary of state.

Florida's recount between President Bush and former Vice President Al Gore gave rise to nationwide soul searching, studies, debates and legislation - all aimed at fixing election-system flaws.

But federal funds promised under the Help America Vote Act, passed in response to the 2000 situation, were a year late, slowing many purchases of new voting equipment. Meanwhile, experts voiced doubts about the security of paperless computerized voting, the favored replacement for punch card and lever machines.

The result? With some notable exceptions, the way the nation votes will be little changed come Nov. 2.

Here's what has happened in a sampling of states where the race between Bush and Democrat John Kerry is especially close:

Florida replaced its punch-card systems with touch-screen computers that record votes directly and leave no paper trail.

Ohio still will use mostly punch cards, with a sprinkling of touch screens and paper ballots optically scanned into computers.

Michigan has converted entirely to optical-scan machines.

Pennsylvanians and North Carolinians will cast votes on five different systems: touch screen, optical scan, punch card, lever and hand-counted paper ballots.

Nevada purchased electronic voting machines that will supply voters with paper receipts statewide, a first in the nation.

And Oregon, which in 2000 initiated statewide voting-by-mail with optically scanned paper ballots, has no plans for changes.

New problems may spring from some reforms, said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a nonpartisan election reform organization based in Washington.

All states must implement provisional ballots this year, allowing people whose names do not appear on voter lists to cast a ballot. The validity is determined later.

But provisional balloting, Chapin said, is shaping up to be "the new hanging chad" of this election. Officials must examine each one by hand to determine whether and how it will be counted. Standards vary from state to state and might be interpreted differently by jurisdictions within a single state.

Many states count provisional ballots only if they are cast in the correct polling place, according to Electionline.org. This, some critics say, violates the spirit of the reform.

During this year's Illinois primary, 93 percent of Chicago's provisional ballots were thrown out. Of these, 24 percent were cast in the wrong place, 45 percent were filled out incorrectly, 27 percent couldn't be verified as coming from registered voters, and the rest were rejected for other reasons.

Some activists are urging voters to cast provisional or absentee ballots where paperless e-voting will be used. The object is to create the otherwise missing audit trail in case of a disputed result.

But Chapin foresees trouble. "When I talk to local elections officials," he said, "their greatest fear is that the number of provisional ballots will exceed the margin of victory in any particular race," leaving the competing parties to squabble over each ballot as Florida did in 2000.

In another reform, the Help America Vote Act required states to build voter registration databases that can be uniformly purged of the names of dead or ineligible voters. Most states have deferred implementing this provision until 2006.

Some states built systems but encountered problems. Florida recently agreed to stop purging felons from its new database when it was discovered that no Hispanics were on the list of criminals compiled by a contractor. For this election, individual counties will purge only the names provided by their county clerks, said Jenny Nash, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State.

Meanwhile, most states are increasing training and tightening election procedures. While this might not have the glamour factor of new voting machines, said Kay J. Maxwell, president of the League of Women Voters, it can go a long way toward improving elections.

"The election is not just a machine," she said. "It's the people, the administrative procedures and the laws around it."

And states are spending more, usually with funds from the Help America Vote Act, to lure citizens to the voting booth and teach them the mechanics of voting once they are there.

"There's so much negativity out there about what happened in 2000 that people don't want to be part of the process," said Brian McDonald, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State. "We're trying to convince them that being part of that process is the way to change it."

Still, there may be no way to avoid controversy.

Chapin compared Florida's 2000 conflagration to a forest fire. "The woods aren't any drier now than they were four years ago," he said, "but more people have matches."

Lawyers from both major political parties, international elections observers, nongovernmental organizations, citizen watchdog groups and the federal government are set to converge on the polls, said Tova Andrea Wang, a democracy fellow with the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan public-policy think tank. "People are going to question the outcomes if the returns are close," she said.

No one knows that better than elections officials in states where the race is tight.

"I believe we've done what we need to do," said Minnesota Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer. "I feel confident in our system."

Even so, she added, "it wakes me up at night. You have to remember that if it's really close, nothing will be enough."

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