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'A Massive Experiment' In Voting

The General Assembly earlier this year approved a resolution by Del. Tim Hugo (R-Fairfax) to convene a commission to come up with recommendations on electronic voting, but those recommendations probably will be released no earlier than two years from now. That action followed an incident in Fairfax County last November in which Republicans blamed a school board candidate's narrow loss on malfunctioning e-voting machines manufactured by Frisco, Texas-based Advanced Voting Solutions.

Loudoun County will use optical scanning ballots this November. Next year it hopes to buy a supplemental device from Glen Ellyn, Ill.-based Automark that allows disabled voters to cast their ballots on optical-scan machines without assistance. The device, which was developed with assistance from Diebold competitor Election Systems & Software, is still awaiting its federal certification.

_____Related Coverage_____
Problems Abound in Election System (The Washington Post, Sep 5, 2004)
Judge Rules in Favor Of Md. Vote Machines (The Washington Post, Sep 2, 2004)
Lost Votes in N.M. a Cautionary Tale (The Washington Post, Aug 22, 2004)
Maryland Activists Want E-Voting Receipts (washingtonpost.com, Jul 19, 2004)

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"In our county we've had so many recounts that if worse came to worst, we could always count the ballots by hand," said Election Board Secretary Dianna Price.

Arlington, which has already used its touch-screen devices in three elections, has refined its techniques for training poll workers, said General Registrar Linda Lindberg, after some rough patches marred the machines' debut in November 2003. Partly because the system was introduced close to the election, the instructions for shutting down the machines were missing some key steps, Lindberg said, with delays resulting from workers' efforts to figure out the procedure.

Arlington now prepares workers with a three-tiered training regimen -- a first level for neophytes, a second that acts as a refresher course for experienced workers and a third for precinct chiefs.

For jurisdictions that using only electronic voting machines, opponents of the systems say that people who want paper records should try to vote by absentee ballot. The District, Maryland and Virginia allow absentee voting for a variety of reasons, but do not have an allowance for people who distrust electronic voting machines. Maryland and Virginia officials will not allow people to vote on paper ballots at the polls unless they use "provisional ballots" if their names do not appear on the voting rolls but they insist they are registered.

Everybody Knows Chad

No one thought that electronic voting machines would be such a controversial subject. First used in the late 1980s, they were one more unremarkable, albeit modern way to perform a civic duty.

E-voting got hot in a hurry after irregularities in southern Florida nearly derailed the 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and then-vice president Al Gore. While all kinds of problems, from registration foul-ups to voter error, affected the vote totals, it was the infamous punchcard ballot that captured the national imagination and injected poll-worker jargon about "pregnant" and "hanging" chads into the popular vocabulary.

The problems in Florida led Congress to pass the Help America Vote Act in 2002, which requires every voting district to modernize its election systems by 2006, authorizing $3.9 billion to make it happen. Many states leaped at the chance, even though the commission that is supposed to develop the guidelines for their use was appointed nearly a year late.

As a result, more than 50 million voters will use the machines this November, according to Election Data Services in Washington, D.C. That compares to 55.7 million voters who use optical scan machines, and 55.4 million who use punchcards, levers or paper ballots.

Americans' attitudes toward electronic voting machines are generally positive but complex, according to a survey commissioned by the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Utah. Asked which voting method they were most comfortable with, 38.3 percent of the 829 registered voters questioned chose electronic, versus 29.5 percent for optical scan, 18.4 percent for punch cards and 8 percent for other methods. An overwhelming majority said electronic systems made voting easier for the disabled. Asked whether electronic systems are more accurate than other methods, 39.4 percent agreed and 27 percent disagreed.

At the same time, a similar plurality -- 38.2 percent to 27.5 percent -- agreed that "electronic voting systems increase the potential for fraud." Even more indicated worries about "unintentional failures" -- 43.3 percent to 22.2 percent. (The margin of error for the overall numbers is 3.4 percentage points.)

This seeming discrepancy in attitudes is even more pronounced in respondents between the ages of 18 and 27. Of these younger voters, 56.1 percent favored electronic voting over other methods, and 54.5 percent said it was more accurate. But they also said, by a 49.5 percent to 18.9 percent margin, that the machines were more vulnerable to fraud -- and were less worried about unintentional failure than the national average.

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