When Americans go to the polls in November to elect a president, they will confront a voting system beset by many of the same problems that produced the bitterly disputed outcome four years ago and led to a 36-day legal standoff ultimately decided by the Supreme Court.
Several of the most hotly contested states -- including Ohio and Missouri -- make widespread use of the paper punch-card ballots that caused so much trouble in Florida in 2000. Concerns about security and recounts have delayed greater use of electronic voting machines in many states. And a hodgepodge of state laws means varying legal requirements for how -- or even if -- recounts will be conducted this time around.
The delays and changes in election laws have prompted both parties and presidential campaigns to gear up early with legal teams in preparation for Election Day and have left local election officials fearful of a repeat of Florida's experience.
Voicing a concern of many election officials and analysts, Bureau of Elections director Denise Lamb in New Mexico -- where the 2000 race was decided by just 366 votes -- said, "God help us if the election is close."
It was not supposed to be this way now. The lessons of the 2000 election that deadlocked in Florida were as clear as the calls for reform: The nation's system for casting and counting ballots was antiquated, unreliable, often capricious and unable to produce a clear-cut winner in an election with razor-close margins.
In response, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act to assist states in upgrading aging voting equipment, creating more accurate voter rolls and preventing eligible voters from being turned away at the polls.
But election officials and experts say many of the most important reforms will not be in place for the Nov. 2 election in the most closely contested states.
Bureaucratic delays, coupled with concerns about the accuracy and security of high-tech electronic voting machines, mean that an estimated 32 million voters in 19 states will still use the punch-card ballots that left Florida officials struggling to divine voter intent from hanging chads and pregnant dimples.
Because Congress set only minimum standards in the voting law, new at-the-poll identification requirements vary widely from state to state. Adding to the confusion, rules differ from state to state on how and when to count "provisional ballots" that must now be given to voters whose names do not appear on the rolls.
The sensitivity to election irregularities after the 2000 experience means that legal challenges to this year's balloting are all but certain, analysts said. Officials in both parties already have filed lawsuits in several states to challenge election rules.
Barry Richard, a Tallahassee lawyer who represented George W. Bush during the 2000 recount, said he thinks it is unlikely this year's election could again come down to a single deadlocked state. And, he said, this time there would be legal precedents set by the 2000 election to guide the process. Still, Richard said, he has agreed to represent President Bush "should the need arise."
Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said he believes litigation is likely.
"We've taken a high level of unease, distrust and skepticism about the sanctity of the voting system from 2000 and we've poured gasoline on the fire," he said. "If the election is close, there's going to be ample reason for the losers to point at a variety of issues."
Equipment and Recounts
A top priority of the Help America Vote Act was the replacement of decades-old election machinery with less error-prone equipment that would help voters catch mistakes and provide for accurate recounts.