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

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 2010; B01

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.

"You almost are setting them up for failure," he said. "You may be creating a situation where voter confidence is gone for quite a while."

Dorothy Brizill, a longtime civic activist who has taken a special interest in the city's election apparatus, said she sees a "potential train wreck" in the multitude of changes. Brizill said most changes passed by the council "will not affect the problems that occurred in our three elections in 2008."

Many changes

A D.C. resident seeking to cast a ballot in this year's primary will be faced with a series of changes that make voting much more convenient but potentially confusing and trouble-prone.

Most profoundly, city balloting will no longer be as concentrated on Election Day. In the past, voters who were unable to show up at their neighborhood polling place could request a mailed absentee ballot, or they could vote in person at a city building downtown but only if they attested to having an excuse -- for example, being out of town, disabled or working a poll.

City voters no longer need an excuse to vote early. For the Sept. 14 primary, any registered voter can request a mailed ballot until Sept. 7 -- a ballot that they will be able to track online as it moves from the elections board to the Postal Service to their homes and back -- or they can cast their votes in person.

Starting Aug. 30, voters will be able to cast paper or electronic ballots at One Judiciary Square six days a week. On Sept. 4, electronic polls will open at four satellite locations -- the Chevy Chase Community Center in Ward 3, Turkey Thicket Recreation Center in Ward 5, Hine Junior High School in Ward 6 and the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center in Ward 8. Voters from any part of the city can cast ballots at any of the five locations.

Elections officials expect as much as 20 percent of the primary ballots this year will be cast early. Suleman said that by 2014, he expects as many as 50 percent of voters will vote early.

The early-voting system has also forced officials to deploy a major new piece of technology: Where voters have previously had to sign a paper poll book to prevent duplicate votes, voting will now be tracked through an electronic system that updates the rolls in real time. Poll workers will view voter data on a laptop computer and will be able to check in a voter by scanning a registration card or driver's license.

The District is also joining a small group of jurisdictions that do not require voters to register before Election Day. An unregistered voter will be able to show up at a polling place with proof of address -- a utility bill, bank statement, driver's license or other government document -- and fill out a ballot.

Unlike most states that allow the practice, same-day registrants in the District won't be able to have their vote automatically counted on Election Day. Those voters will cast provisional ballots, which will be held separately and subject to challenge.

Election officials are expecting as much as a 10 percent bump in voter turnout from same-day registrations.

Once a voter casts a ballot, there are further changes. Because the city has purchased new equipment, a long-standing tradition is no more: Voters will no longer "connect the arrow" on their paper ballots. Rather, they will fill in an oval, SAT-style. Voters who opt to use touch-screen electronic voting machines will be dealing with a new interface as well.

The new electronic machines, per council legislation, also contain a "voter verified paper audit trail." A paper tape kept under glass will record each selection, allowing voters to review their choices as they make them. That tape will be kept and reviewed in case of a post-election dispute.

A lot of training

Those charged with making sure the election goes off without a hitch include 143 precinct captains and about 1,800 poll workers.

Where poll workers have in the past gotten as little as 45 minutes of training, they will now get a minimum of several hours. And, for the first time, poll workers will be able to take online training courses to supplement in-person training.

Many poll workers, it is widely acknowledged, are seniors -- leading Brizill and others to worry that all the new technology, especially the electronic poll books, could prove unfamiliar and problematic.

"To tell them, all of a sudden, that you have to operate a laptop, that could become a touchy-feely kind of situation," said Yvonne L. Williams, captain of a Deanwood precinct, who attended a July 24 training session.

Suleman said that poll workers will have to demonstrate to supervisors that they can properly use the new technology. If they can't or don't want to, he says, they'll be given another job.

At the training seminar, Michael E. Williams, who captains a Southwest precinct, took note of the printer buzzing inside one of the new iVotronic machines as he made his selections.

"They're going to want to know what that is, that it's a paper trail," he said. "I think that's going to be a problem."

And later, Williams expressed concern that same-day registration would offer too many opportunities for fraud.

"I want to make sure that they are who they say they are," he said. "I'm just not comfortable yet."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company