The American system of voting goes on trial again Tuesday, two years after a deadlocked presidential election and a chaotic recount of ballots in Florida revealed deep flaws in the way elections are conducted across the country.
After everything that went wrong in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, Tuesday's voting here and around the country is likely to be one of the most closely watched elections in U.S. history. And for once, the voting process itself will be of almost as much interest as the outcome of key races.
No state wants to be the Florida of 2002, but no state can be certain of how Tuesday's events will unfold. In most states, the voting equipment and procedures are little changed from two years ago. In the few states such as Georgia where there have been major changes, the new systems are facing their first real tests, adding a new element of uncertainty to Election Day.
What state and local election officials can be sure of is that they will be under scrutiny like never before. Both Democrats and Republicans are dispatching teams of lawyers and others to monitor the election process in areas where they suspect there may be irregularities. Several advocacy groups are doing the same. Legal challenges in some close races are almost certain to be filed.
Even without a presidential election this year, the political stakes are high as the two major parties battle for control of Congress. Just a few close races -- the Georgia Senate contest between GOP Rep. C. Saxby Chambliss and incumbent Democrat Max Cleland is one -- could tip the balance either way. With the closeness of several key races, possible automatic recounts and the often slow process of counting absentee ballots, the answer to the ultimate question of who controls Congress may not be known until Wednesday at the earliest.
Most of the states reacted cautiously to the Florida 2000 election debacle. Some states enacted changes in their election laws, but others waited to see how the federal government would respond. Last month, Congress did respond, enacting legislation that mandates changes in voter registration and balloting procedures and authorizes $3.86 billion to help the states overhaul their election systems.
As a result, "this year's modest changes will pale in comparison to the likely deluge of state and local election reforms in 2003 and beyond, prompted by the availability of federal funds and the requirements of federal standards," the Election Reform Information Project, an information clearinghouse that has been tracking developments in voting practices around the country, said in a recent report.
Maryland is among the handful of states that enacted far-reaching legislation mandating a uniform voting system and other changes. Four Maryland counties -- Montgomery, Prince George's, Allegany and Dorchester -- have been phasing in the new system using touch-screen voting machines.
But no state went further in revising its election system than Georgia, which on Tuesday will make history by becoming the first to conduct an election with a uniform, statewide system of computerized voting equipment. Georgia officials also anticipated many of the requirements of the federal legislation.
The touch-screen machines that will be used here provide for "second chance" voting, allowing voters to review their ballots and correct mistakes before the ballot is cast. Voters whose names do not appear on official registration lists will be given "provisional ballots," which will be counted if the voter's registration is later verified. The voting machines are designed to be accessible to the disabled, and at least one at every polling place will have audio equipment, allowing blind voters to cast their ballots in private, without assistance.
All of this makes what happens here Tuesday of keen interest to state and local election officials around the country. They know that implementing massive changes in such a complex system is fraught with peril.
That lesson was driven home in September by another voting fiasco in South Florida. Like Georgia, Florida has also revamped its election system since 2000, although it did not mandate uniform equipment throughout the state. In the Sept. 10 Florida primary in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, there were numerous voting machine breakdowns, polls opened late or closed early and both poll workers and voters operated in an atmosphere of confusion. For several days, the outcome of the close Democratic gubernatorial primary hung in the balance, threatening a nightmarish replay of the 2000 presidential election recount.
After that experience, which also involved touch-screen voting machines, "Georgia leads the league in sweaty palms" going into Tuesday's general election, said Doug Chapin, director of the Election Reform Information Project.
But Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox (D), the driving force behind the new Georgia system, professes no such worries. After the 2000 election, Cox put together an analysis showing that there was a higher percentage of nonvotes and spoiled votes for president in Georgia than there had been in neighboring Florida. "Had Georgia been hanging in the balance, people would have been laughing at us," she said.
Armed with that information, Cox persuaded Gov. Roy Barnes (D) and the Democratic-controlled state legislature to approve a $54 million bond issue to purchase new voting equipment and overhaul the system. The state also appropriated $4 million for poll worker training and voter education, which Cox and others argue is the key to making the system work. Most of the September voting problems in South Florida were due to "a severe lack of poll worker training," she said.
Steve Beauchamp, 30, is one of the keys to fulfilling Cox's hope for a smooth Election Day here. Since September, he and other technicians working for Diebold Inc., the manufacturer of the touch-screen voting machines, have been training hundreds of poll workers across Georgia on the intricacies of the new computerized, touch-screen voting machines that for the first time will be used in each of the state's 3,000 voting precincts on Tuesday.
One recent day, Beauchamp conducted one of the scheduled 14 classes for poll workers here in Gwinnett County, a burgeoning outer suburban enclave about 35 miles northeast of Atlanta.
There were 10 voting machines, which look like oversized laptop computers set on waist-high platforms, that the two dozen poll workers eagerly trained on as Beauchamp explained how the machines work, the process each voter will follow in casting a ballot, and how to tally all those votes at the end of a long day. Lynn Ledford, Gwinnett County elections supervisor, hovered nearby to answer questions
The poll workers said they were impressed. "I think this thing is fantastic," said Gary Hays, 59, who has been a poll worker for seven years. "I don't see how anyone can miss it."
Beauchamp is also enthusiastic about the new equipment, but he had a warning about unintended consequences on Election Day. "This machine is going to be the bottleneck," he said. "People are going to play with it, and voting time is going to be increased. It's a new toy."
Ledford said voter turnout for a midterm election in Gwinnett County is normally 20 to 30 percent, but she predicted up to a 10 percent boost this year because of voter curiosity about the new equipment, which has been the subject of an intensive voter education campaign.
For Georgia, the move to a uniform, touch-screen system is a radical departure. As recently as two years ago, Georgians voted with a hodgepodge of equipment, including two types of optical scanners, punch cards and lever machines. Paper ballots were still in use in two counties.
Diebold has promised to have close to 500 technicians in the state on Election Day to handle any equipment malfunctions. "I am very confident," Cox said. "My name is on the ballot. It has to work."
But she also admits to "obsessing over so many details." Recently, Cox sent to every precinct in the state a zip-lock plastic bag containing two backup batteries for the voting machines, a screwdriver to open the machines and two nightlights which, if they go out on Election Day, will alert poll workers to a loss of electric power at their polling place.
"We won't have the types of problems they had in Florida," said Ledford, who has 15 years of experience running elections. "But we're going to have problems because with new equipment, something comes up out of the blue."