Election indicates U.S. still faces problems at polls

Machines, laws confused voters

November 26, 2006|By New York Times News Service

After six years of technological research, more than $4 billion spent by Washington on new machinery and a widespread overhaul of the nation's voting system, this month's midterm election revealed that the country is still far from able to ensure that every vote counts.

Tens of thousands of voters, scattered across more than 25 states, encountered serious problems at the polls, including failures in sophisticated new voting machines and confusion over new identification rules, according to interviews with election analysts and officials.

In many places, the difficulties led to shortages of substitute paper ballots and long lines that caused many voters to leave without casting ballots. Still, an association of top state election officials concluded that for the most part, voting went as smoothly as expected.

Over the past three weeks, attention has been focused on a few close races affected by voting problems, including those in Florida and Ohio where counting dragged on for days. But because most of this year's races were not close, analysts say voting problems may have been wider than initially estimated, with many malfunctions overlooked.

That oversight may not be possible in the presidential election of 2008, when turnout will be higher and every vote will matter in what experts say will probably be a close race.

Voting experts say it is impossible to say how many votes were not counted that should have been. But in Florida alone, the discrepancies reported across Sarasota County and three others amount to more than 60,000 votes. In Colorado, as many as 20,000 people gave up trying to vote, election officials say, as new online systems for verifying voter registrations crashed repeatedly. And in Arkansas, election officials tallied votes three times in one county, and each time the number of ballots cast changed by more than 30,000.

"If the success of an election is to be measured according to whether each voter's voice is heard, then we would have to conclude that this past election was not entirely a success," said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a nonpartisan election group that plans to release a report Wednesday with a state-by-state assessment of voting. "In places where the margin of victory was bigger than the margin of error, we looked away from the problems, but in 2008 we might not have that luxury."

There were a few signs of progress this month. Several states that faced computer difficulties in the primaries fixed the kinks by Election Day and were better stocked with backup paper ballots. Fears that more stringent identification laws in Indiana and Arizona would create confusion at the polls did not pan out.

But some of the biggest states have not been able to overcome problems with new technology or rules. In Ohio, thousands of voters were turned away or forced to file provisional ballots by poll workers puzzled by voter-identification rules. In Pennsylvania, the machines crashed or refused to start, producing many reports of vote-flipping, which means that voters press the button for one candidate but a different candidate's name appeared on the screen.

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