Making votes count

Efforts to improve the accuracy of counting this year's presidential vote are falling short, and experts expect more technical and legal trouble this November.

October 10, 2004|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

FOUR YEARS AGO, the talk after the presidential election was about hanging chads. This November, it might be about bad code.

That would be computer code. With more and more Americans - including voters in Maryland - depending on computer programs to tally their votes, it would not be surprising if somewhere along the line the same type of glitch that occasionally keeps your home computer from booting up pops up in the polling process.

And if it does, it is highly unlikely to be a little-noticed local problem. Next month's vote is shaping up to be the most scrutinized election in the country's history.

In every one of the dozen or so battleground states, the election process will be subject to constant surveillance by both parties and a variety of other interest groups. Teams of lawyers are on standby, ready to jump in.

All that attention will be focused on an election that not only leans heavily on new - and mostly untested - technology but also features a huge number of new voters and a passel of new requirements for identification.

It might not be a recipe for disaster, but it is akin to a host deciding to make the most complicated dish found in a French cookbook for the first time for an important dinner party. Some problems are to be expected.

"When it's a close election, that magnifies all kinds of problems that are normally unnoticed," says Douglas W. Jones, a computer scientist who specializes in election technology at the University of Iowa. "Because of that, we could have, at the same time, one of the most controversial and one of the best-run elections in our history."

Only a few years ago, veteran political junkies were grousing that the wee-hours drama had been drained from election nights by exit polls and network projections. That is no longer the case.

Those who stayed up all night in 2000 still did not know who won. If the vote next month is anywhere near as close as the one in 2000, it would not be surprising to find the outcome up in the air for an extended period of time.

"Americans are anticipating a close election and are probably braced to wait a while for the final outcome," says Paul S. Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, College Park. "But a stalemate like that of 2000 can create tremendous harm. Many people believe that the Supreme Court was out of line in the way it decided the 2000 election and that democracy was subverted. That can't happen many times before people lose faith in the political system."

One thing the 2000 election drove home is that the election is not a careful count of each vote cast. Forget the election night tally on your TV screen, . thousands of votes are not counted for one reason or another - spoiled ballots, absentee ballots that won't change the outcome, machine breakdowns. It turns out to be an expected and accepted part of the process.

"Think about how many participants we have in a nationwide election," Jones says. "Four years ago, 110 million people voted. There are over 3,000 counties in the United States, so you have over 3,000 chief election officers, probably on the order of 1 million election workers. ... Show me any human enterprise with that number of people involved where there aren't mistakes made and dishonest people involved."

`Big wake-up call'

The election, it turns out, is more the final opinion poll. Most polls have a sample of about 1,000 voters and a 3.5 percent margin of error. The Election Day poll has a sample of more than 100 million and an infinitesimal margin of error. In 2000, the result was within that tiny margin of error. Statistically, it was a tie.

"I think the 2000 election was a big wake-up call for many Americans," says Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, College Park. "People never dreamed that as many ballots were being spoiled and thrown out as there were."

"It was a big shock to the whole democratic process," Walters says. "As a result, people are very suspicious."

A result of the 2000 debacle was the Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress in 2002. Among other things, it aims to get rid of the punch-card ballots that produced those controversial chads in Florida. Just as the No Child Left Behind Act has school districts across the country scrambling to meet its requirements, HAVA has election officials in a similar mode.

Among its provisions is one requiring photo identification for first-time voters who registered by mail. Some states will require such IDs for all voters. The idea is to combat voter fraud, but some fear that the requirement will lead to confusion and be used to intimidate legally registered voters.

That has drawn the attention of Walters, who is active this year in what he calls a "nonpartisan turnout group" called the National Coalition for Black Civic Participation, a group that he says has more than 2,000 lawyers and law students signed up to stand by on Election Day.

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