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High Turnout, New Procedures May Mean an Election Day Mess

In 2004, voters in Columbus, Ohio, waited in long lines to cast ballots. This year, election officials there have added poll workers and voting machines.
In 2004, voters in Columbus, Ohio, waited in long lines to cast ballots. This year, election officials there have added poll workers and voting machines. (By Laura Rauch -- Associated Press)

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By Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 18, 2008

Faced with a surge in voter registrations leading up to Nov. 4, election officials across the country are bracing for long lines, equipment failures and confusion over polling procedures that could cost thousands the chance to cast a ballot.

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The crush of voters will strain a system already in the midst of transformation, with jurisdictions introducing new machines and rules to avoid the catastrophe of the deadlocked 2000 election and the lingering controversy over the 2004 outcome. Even within the past few months, cities and counties have revamped their processes: Nine million voters, including many in the battleground states of Ohio, Florida and Colorado, will use equipment that has changed since March.

But the widespread changes meant to reassure the public have also increased the potential for trouble.

"You change systems and throw in lots of new voters, and you can plan to be up the proverbial creek," said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, a consulting firm that has tracked the voting changes.

Since Congress passed the Help America Vote Act six years ago, $3 billion in federal funds has been spent to overhaul voting operations, much of it for new equipment. With touchscreen machines falling out of favor, an increasing number of the nation's voters -- just over half -- will use paper ballots, which will be read by optical scanners. That will produce a paper trail that can serve as a backup if questions arise over tallies.

For more than half of the states, this will be the first presidential election using statewide databases required by the 2002 law to improve the accuracy of voter rolls. When voters arrive at the polls, their information must match the list in order for them to receive a regular ballot. That could trigger contentious questions in places with particularly rigid rules on what constitutes a match.

Both campaigns have lined up teams of lawyers to challenge any irregularities, from registrations to polling place problems to vote counts.

And experts say the problems ahead will be formidable, even if they don't rise to the level of the Supreme Court challenge over the 2000 results.

"The voting process is going to be tested in a way it has not been in recent history," said Tova Wang, vice president for research at Common Cause, a government watchdog group.

Recent local primaries have offered warning signs.

In the District last week, initial tallies were inflated by thousands of votes, causing chaos that night, and officials have yet to explain the problem.

In Palm Beach County, Fla., more than 3,500 ballots went missing in an August primary, forcing workers to hunt through bins and leaving a judicial election still undecided.

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