"This is their experience with electronic technology. They've had their iPods freeze up, but they also want to use these technologies," said study co-author Thad E. Hall, a Utah political science professor. "Anything can screw up. ... As the 2000 election showed, you can even screw up a paper election. They see the tradeoffs but they're willing to accept them."
Some in Congress have taken up the standard of paper-trail advocates. "Chances are there won't be a problem, but we'll never know," said U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), who has authored a bill in the House of Representatives to require a voter-verified paper record. "Is there a person alive in the 20th century who hasn't encountered a bug in the computer? Even in computers where the programmers swear they got everything right."
Holt's bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Thomas Davis III (R-Va.), is frozen in the House Administration Committee. Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) believes that the Elections Assistance Commission and the Federal Election Commission should resolve the issue, said spokesman Brian Walsh. "A lot of rhetoric and conspiracy is taking the place of hard facts and science," Walsh said.
Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) is sponsoring a similar bill, and recently added Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) to his list of supporters. However, he does not expect results in time to affect the upcoming presidential contest.
"I wish we could do something, but in terms of actually having it pass and signed into law and having an effect on the November 2004 election, that's not going to happen," Graham said.
"If there were some kind of major meltdown on Election Day, there might be the possibility of these bills moving forward post-election," said Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, a nonpartisan clearinghouse that monitors and analyzes election reforms. "This is a crisis-driven issue."
Mikulski's jump into the paper-trail camp came a day after she had difficulty registering her vote on a touch-screen unit being demonstrated at the Takoma Park Folk Festival. Although she eventually was able to submit her choice, the experience affirmed "the idea that there needs to be a paper trail," a Mikulski spokesman told The Baltimore Sun. The incident touched off an episode in which a volunteer election worker refused to return the machine and arranged for it to be examined by an expert hired by CBS News at the offices of TrueVotemd.org.
Aside from such high-spirited goings-on, state political parties in the metropolitan area have tried to stand aloof from the debate.
"We are following the lead of the legislature and the governor," said Maryland Democratic Party Executive Director Josh White. "We're sympathetic but we feel there's no reason to call for a halt to the use of the machines." Maryland Republican Party spokeswoman Deborah Martinez said she has not heard "much of an uproar" from constituents.
Laura Bland, spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said that the party is concerned about touch-screen technology, but "we have every confidence in the State Board of Elections." Virginia Republican Party spokesman Shawn Smith said that the subject "is not something we have taken a position on or focused on."
The Republican National Committee also has taken no official position, said spokeswoman Christine Iverson. Tony Welch, press secretary for the Democratic National Committee, said that the party's platform calls for voting systems that are accessible to all voters and independently audited. "We know that the [electronic] machines are going to be in use this election, so our focus is to make sure that voters are educated in how to use the machines, making sure that election officials are properly trained as well and making sure that the machines are tested," Welch said.
The Bush-Cheney and Kerry-Edwards campaigns did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
Taking a firm position on touch-screen voting can produce touchy reactions among influential voting blocs.