Congress's decision to appropriate $1.5 billion this year for election reform is providing crucial aid to states struggling to meet new federal voting standards in lean fiscal times, officials in several states say.
Hoping to prevent the kind of debacle that marked the 2000 presidential election in Florida, state officials nationwide are trying to make polling places less prone to confusion and errors. But with states facing budget shortfalls, some had held back until Congress showed it was willing to finance the improvements immediately.
"No one wanted to go through another election crunch with the problems we had in 2000, but no one could make those improvements without significant federal funding," said Linda Lamone, Maryland's administrator of elections.
Maryland has succeeded in upgrading machines for a third of its voters and expects to get about $22 million this year to expand its election reform efforts.
Last fall Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, authorizing $3.9 billion over three years to upgrade voting equipment, train poll workers, educate voters and meet other federal requirements. But it was not until this month, after Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) personally appealed to President Bush, that negotiators agreed to disburse the money as part of a bill funding government operations this fiscal year.
"People are dancing in the streets," said Leslie Reynolds, executive director of the National Association of Secretaries of State. "It lets the states know what a high priority election reform is."
Under the new law, by the 2004 elections states must provide "provisional ballots" to voters whose names are not on registration lists. By 2006, each state must have a computerized, statewide voter registration database and equipment that allows voters to change the way they marked their ballot before it is cast.
The money cannot be diverted to other state priorities, and within a few years tens of millions of residents will be voting on new, more efficient machines.
Some states are scrambling to meet the requirements. New York officials have formed a task force to study how they will replace 21,000 voting machines. "It's a huge thing to do it in one fell swoop," said Leo Daghlian, spokesman for the State Board of Elections.
Some rural states face a particularly tough challenge. Kansas Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh said some sparsely populated counties still count paper ballots by hand, and these jurisdictions lack the computer programmers and facilities needed to store and operate high-tech voting equipment.
"These types of long-term issues are going to be a huge problem for our rural counties," Thornburgh said. He said he hopes to invest some of the initial federal funding so rural officials can afford to maintain the new equipment.
Georgia is already reaping dividends. It has placed electronic voting machines statewide and ensured that, for the first time, disabled voters can cast votes by themselves.
"It was a great success; voters loved it," said Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox, referring to last November's elections. In the 1998 Senate race, she said, 4.8 percent of ballots were unable to be recorded. Last fall, the figure was 0.8 percent.