AFTER THE 2000 election debacle, Congress took steps to improve the voting system, but it acted slowly, stingily and sloppily. Of the $4 billion for new voting technology authorized by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, Congress provided only $1.5 billion, and much of that came late. While the law required that voters who for some reason aren't on the rolls be permitted to cast provisional ballots, it didn't specify how such ballots should be handled. That turned out not to be an issue this year only because President Bush won by a comfortable enough margin to make the provisional ballots irrelevant.
One set of problems last week had to do with the mechanics of voting. The wait to vote was unacceptably long in some places. If more machines are needed, states must invest in them, and the federal government needs to do its part to fulfill the promise of the new law. While we retain a sentimental attachment to the notion of a single election day, more states should move to early voting, as 35 states already have. In particular, opening polling places the weekend before Election Day makes sense.
Improved technology could help alleviate difficulties with provisional ballots. The 2002 law required these ballots in an effort to avoid the problems of 2000, when many voters were turned away because their names had been incorrectly removed from voter rolls. The Help America Vote Act forces states to assemble computerized registration records; only 15 managed to do so in time for this election, but all are supposed to by 2006. One risk is that glitches in these systems will cause more problems than they solve, as some states experience difficulties with the transition. But if the technology works so that voters can easily determine whether they are registered and where they should vote, fewer provisional ballots will be cast.
Nonetheless, the rules governing such ballots need to be made clearer, minimizing the risks of whim or partisanship in tallying them. For example, should minor errors in filling out a registration form -- a box left blank -- mean that a voter isn't registered and therefore the provisional ballot doesn't count? Congress needs to weigh whether the law itself needs fine-tuning, or whether it will be enough if states put more detailed rules in place.
If the vote in Ohio had been close enough that the state's 155,000 provisional ballots would determine the winner, the election could still be in limbo. According to Ohio's secretary of state, J. Kenneth Blackwell, the provisional ballots wouldn't be counted until 11 days after the election. Even then, county election boards composed of two Democrats and two Republicans had little guidance on which ballots to count -- and allowing a vote to be counted would have required the agreement of three of the four board members.
If last week's election went more smoothly than the one in 2000, it was thanks to luck more than planning. Before that luck runs out, lingering flaws identified in the 2000 election, and additional difficulties created by ostensible repairs, should be fixed.