Some concern over scope of cutting-edge changes in the District voting process

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 2010

Eleven states allow voters to register on the same day they cast a ballot. Thirty-three states require electronic voting machines to have an auditable paper record. A similar number allow residents to vote before Election Day without excuse.

Only the District is attempting to do all of these things at once.

In one fell swoop, D.C. voters will find themselves on the cutting edge of national election trends. After a series of problems with the 2008 city elections led lawmakers to overhaul voting equipment, standards and procedures, the way D.C. residents vote is changing dramatically. Voters are now allowed to vote early without excuse, either in person or by mail; they can register to vote as late as Election Day; and they will use new equipment to cast their ballots.

The D.C. Council directive has had officials, many of them overseeing their first city election, scrambling to buy new equipment, formulate new procedures and train hundreds of poll workers. The scope of the changes and the quick timetable for implementation have some observers concerned.

"They've got good people, but the city council, quite frankly, has loaded too much on them," said Doug Lewis, executive director of the National Association of Election Officials. "You've put in infinite points of failure. It's just too much all at once."

But Rokey W. Suleman II, executive director of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics since July 2009, said his agency will be ready for the primary elections Sept. 14.

"So far, we've not run into a lot of surprises," Suleman said. "I'm expecting hiccups on Election Day. There's no doubt, especially with implementing everything we're doing at one time." Some board staffers, he said, have been working 18-hour days to prepare.

The passel of changes follows what had been an ugly 2008 election cycle. The presidential primary held that February attracted an unexpectedly large number of voters, leading to shortages of paper ballots. In the primary for local offices, held that September, unofficial election-night returns showed one Ward 2 precinct with an unusually high number of write-in votes -- inflating vote totals in a hotly contested Republican council race, among others. A chaotic scene erupted at election headquarters as officials attempted to square the results, and questions about the numbers weren't resolved for days. And in the general election in November 2008, as many as 126 absentee voters were mailed the wrong ballots.

A D.C. Council committee, led by Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), investigated the problems. A report released last month found that in the September incident, design defects in the old voting equipment, manufactured by Sequoia Voting Systems, led to an undetermined error in downloading one voting machine's tally to a central computer.

"We had issues last time, and we had to fix them," Cheh said. "It seemed to me to be an opportunity to open up the franchise. That's the main thrust of this -- to make voting more user-friendly."

The result was a far-reaching election reform bill, passed in November, that does much more than require new equipment. In addition to early voting and same-day registration, it overhauls a number of election processes -- including allowing 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they will turn 18 by the general election day.

Lewis, who has been consulting with Suleman and other election officials, said that he would have counseled lawmakers to stagger the various changes over time to reduce the risk of mishaps.

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