By Dan Balz and Zachary A. Goldfarb
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 17, 2006
An overhaul in how states and localities record votes and administer elections since the Florida recount battle six years ago has created conditions that could trigger a repeat -- this time on a national scale -- of last week's Election Day debacle in the Maryland suburbs, election experts said.
In the Nov. 7 election, more than 80 percent of voters will use electronic voting machines, and a third of all precincts this year are using the technology for the first time. The changes are part of a national wave, prompted by the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 and numerous revisions of state laws, that led to the replacement of outdated voting machines with computer-based electronic machines, along with centralized databases of registered voters and other steps to refine the administration of elections.
But in Maryland last Tuesday, a combination of human blunders and technological glitches caused long lines and delays in vote-counting. The problems, which followed ones earlier this year in Ohio, Illinois and several other states, have contributed to doubts among some experts about whether the new systems are reliable and whether election officials are adequately prepared to use them.
In a polarized political climate, in which elections are routinely marked by litigation and allegations of incompetent administration or outright tampering, some worry that voting problems could cast a Florida-style shadow over this fall's midterm elections.
"We could see that control of Congress is going to be decided by races in recount situations that might not be determined for several weeks," said Paul S. DeGregorio, chairman of the federal Election Assistance Commission, although he added that he does not expect problems of this magnitude.
"It's hard to put a factor on how ill-prepared we are," said former Ohio governor Richard F. Celeste, a Democrat who recently co-chaired a study of new machines with Republican Richard L. Thornburgh, former governor of Pennsylvania, for the National Research Council. They advised local election officials to prepare backup plans for November.
"What we know is, these technologies require significant testing and debugging to make them work," added Celeste, now president of Colorado College. "Our concern -- particularly as we look to the November election, when there is a lot of pressure on -- is that election officials consider what kinds of fallbacks they can put in place."
The main focus is on whether people know how to properly use the machines, particularly the large army of volunteers who staff the polls at most precincts.
"We know the equipment works because it's been qualified to federal standards," said Kevin J. Kennedy, executive director of the Wisconsin State Elections Board and president of the National Association of State Election Directors. "The real challenge is to make sure our poll workers are trained and make sure voters have been educated so that we don't have an experience like Maryland had."
What is clear is that a national effort to improve election procedures six years ago -- after the presidential election ended with ambiguous ballots and allegations of miscounted votes and partisan favoritism in Florida -- has failed to restore broad public confidence that the system is fair.
To the contrary, litigation is on the rise. Rick Hasen, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and the author of Election Law Blog, found that the number of election challenges filed in court had risen sharply from 2000 to 2004 -- from 197 per year to 361. "Parties have become more willing to go to court," Hasen said.
In 2004, some Democrats alleged widespread voting irregularities in Ohio, including questionable vote-counting and problems with machines in Democratic-leaning precincts. Nonpartisan election experts have said the problems were not so severe to call President Bush's victory, by about 119,000 votes, into question.
This year, there are debates over standards for keeping voter registration rolls up to date; for the handling of "provisional ballots" used by people who do not show up on those rolls but believe they are legally qualified to vote; and for assuring the validity of electronic vote counts through the use of paper trails for all electronic machines. State legislation requiring state or federal identification for all voters has been challenged in courts.
One reason many issues are coming to a head this year is that the Help America Vote Act set the start of 2006 as the deadline for states to comply fully with its regulations.
Help America Vote does not mandate electronic voting, but it has greatly accelerated that trend. The law banned lever machines and punch cards to end debates about ambiguous "hanging chads" of the sort that occurred in Florida in 2000. What is clear is that electronic machines have their own imponderables.
In Montgomery County, the breakdown came when election officials failed to provide precinct workers with the access cards needed to operate electronic voting machines. In Prince George's County, computers misidentified some voters' party affiliation and failed to transmit data to the central election office. At least nine other states have had trouble this year with new voting technology.
During Illinois's March primary, poll workers in Cook County (Chicago) experienced problems at hundreds of sites with new voting technology, delaying results in a crucial vote for the county's board.
In Ohio, results from the May primary election were delayed for nearly a week in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) when thousands of absentee ballots were incorrectly formatted for electronic scanners and had to be counted by hand.
Twenty-seven states require electronic voting machines to produce a paper trail available for auditing during a recount, but an analysis of Cuyahoga County's paper trail by the nonpartisan Election Science Institute showed that a tenth of the receipts were uncountable.
So far, none of these problems has prompted lingering legal challenges. But experts say turnout in general elections is much higher than in primaries and will put new stresses on the election system.
Although Help America Vote imposed national standards, it did not impose a uniform system. There are different styles and brands of equipment in use, with the potential for different bugs. The main systems are optical-scan machines and touch-screen machines. The potential problems election officials cite include machines breaking down or paper ballots not being read by optical-scan machines.
Beyond technical bugs, questions remain about whether the machines are vulnerable to vote fraud by hackers.
For several years, prominent computer scientists have taken aim at the electronic voting machines, which in essence are computers. In analyses of the software that runs widely used models of the machines, and in tests on specific brands, the scientists have shown how they could manipulate the machine to report a vote total that differed from the actual total cast by voters.
Machine vendors and some election officials have said that, while changing vote totals may be possible for someone with sophisticated technical knowledge in a controlled experiment, it is highly unlikely in a real election, given the security and oversight.
In the wake of Help America Vote, Congress has appropriated more than $3 billion to states to upgrade equipment, and Vermont Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, the president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, said many states have met all of Help America Vote's requirements. Backers credit the law with making voting easier for the disabled and people for whom English is not a primary language. And they say that when machines and databases work properly, they make voting more accurate.
As Election Day nears, however, states remain embroiled in legal disputes growing out of Help America Vote's requirements for centralized voter databases and for some first-time voters to show identification at the polls. The Justice Department has sued New York state for failing to comply with Help America Vote requirements, such as upgrading machines and building a central voter database.
Democrats and Republicans remain at odds over voter registration rolls. The Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal advocacy group, recently showed that properly registered voters in Florida, New Jersey and Kentucky were being removed from voter databases through electronic purges.
"Voter suppression doesn't happen with intimidation on Election Day, but rather through silent and sometimes secret government actions in the weeks leading up to an election," said Michael Waldman, the center's executive director.
Republicans have pressed for laws requiring voters to show a state or federal identification card -- a requirement Democrats say could disenfranchise low-income and minority voters.
A handful of states have passed expansive laws requiring voters to show state or federal ID at the polls. On Thursday, a circuit court judge in Missouri struck down as unconstitutional that state's ID requirement. That ruling followed a similar decision by a court in Georgia. A court in Indiana, however, upheld the requirement.
Further clouding the election process is the fact that, in many states, the administration of elections remains in political hands -- run by secretaries of state or other officials who run for office with partisan affiliations and who often have designs on higher office.
Robert Pastor, director of a commission on election reform organized by American University and headed by former president Jimmy Carter and former secretary of state James A. Baker III, said this tradition should be abandoned.
"The Carter-Baker commission identified 87 steps that need to be undertaken," he said. "Regrettably, almost none of them are being done right now. I would start by establishing statewide, nonpartisan election administration."