ESPAÑOLA, N.M. -- Four years ago, about 2,300 voters traveled the winding roads through this remote county to cast their ballots before Election Day on state-of-the-art, push-button electronic voting machines. For 678 of them, their votes were never recorded.
Vice President Al Gore won this state by 366 votes. Even if the missing votes had gone for George W. Bush and given him New Mexico's five electoral votes, it would not have changed the outcome of the presidential race.
But the missing votes in Rio Arriba County show that even in the finest electronic voting systems -- New Mexico holds itself out as a leader after a decade of experience -- serious miscounts that could sway elections can occur if the computerized machines are not correctly programmed.
With many states making moves to electronic voting machines this year, critics of the new technology say it is fraught with the potential for fraud. But what happened in Rio Arriba County shows what some computer experts say is a far more pressing concern: mistakes in computer programming by inexperienced local election staffs.
The Washington Post examined the voting results here because New Mexico had the narrowest winning margin in the presidential contest, and Rio Arriba County had the largest percentage of voters who had no presidential vote. The review discovered that 203 voters turned out in one of Rio Arriba's voting districts, but the state's certified results show "0" votes were recorded for Gore or Bush. The same was true for the U.S. Senate and House candidates. In another district, two-thirds of those who voted in the month before Election Day -- early voting is allowed in New Mexico -- had no votes recorded in any races. Steve Fresquez, a state computer technician who oversaw vote counts for Rio Arriba County, said the electronic machines had been programmed incorrectly for early voters, but it was not discovered until days after the election.
"It was such a mess, but there was nothing we could do about it because it was over. It was too late. The election had already gone through," Fresquez said. When it came to reporting the results, "we allowed the county to do the best they could and, as you can see, it wasn't too good."
In the months after the disputed 2000 presidential vote in Florida, which was marred by "hanging chads" and other problems with paper ballots, advocates of electronic voting machines said computerized systems would end concerns about the accuracy of ballots.
A number of states, including Maryland and Georgia, have moved to such systems, spending tens of millions of dollars.
Critics have said the machines are not perfect and are subject to deliberate tampering, but the experience in Rio Arriba County shows that simple, benign mistakes in programming can lead to results being wildly off.
Mistakes are likely to arise when thousands of small counties nationwide program ballots for multiple districts with dozens of races in each election, said Steve Ansolabehere, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is participating in the CalTech-MIT Voting Technology Project. "That is the Number 1 problem with electronic voting: the programming for each election," he said. "These offices in rural areas do not have the staff with the kind of technical expertise necessary to do electronic voting."
The need for better training of local workers and volunteers is one point on which supporters and opponents of electronic voting agree. Several states, the federal government and think tanks all say that undertrained workers are the weakest link.
"You can spend all the money you want to spend on technology and you're still not going to get better elections," said William F. Welsh, board member and former chairman of Election Systems & Software, one of the industry's biggest companies.
About 90 percent of New Mexico's voters cast their ballots electronically. Rio Arriba County sits on the state's northern border and features a mile-high valley between two plateaus, with purple mountains in the distance. It has a population of just more than 40,000 spread across an area almost half the size of Maryland. It takes 2 1/2 hours to drive from one end of the county to another -- from some pueblos, driving to a polling place requires following a road into Colorado and back.
Because of those distances, County Clerk Fred Vigil encourages voting during the month before the election on the push-button electronic voting equipment used here for a decade.