Punching holes in dated vote systems

Although voting problems focused the nation's attention on Florida during the 2000 presidential election, similar problems plagued voters nationwide,officials told a Senate committee March 7. Lever voting machines broke downin New York, machines rejected ballots in Illinois and optical scannersmalfunctioned in Georgia.

The widespread failures emphasize the need for new voting technology and national standards for election practices, a panel of state election officials told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

"If our election systems had undergone the same scrutiny that Florida endured, we would have fared no better, and perhaps we would have fared even worse," said Cathy Cox, Georgia secretary of state.

In some Georgia counties, 15 percent of the votes cast were not counted by optical scanner voting machines, Cox said.

In Florida and elsewhere, voters were turned away from polling places because voter registration rolls were inaccurate or inaccessible and pollworkers were poorly trained. Minorities were turned away at far higher rates than whites, said Rep. Carrie Meek (D-Fla.).

Oregon officials say a central voter registration database is essential for keeping accurate track of its voter registration data, now stored in 36 separate data-bases. But at a cost of $6 million, the state can't afford to act without diverting money from education and health care, said Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury.

After Florida's election fiasco, a state task force endorsed optical scanners as the technology of choice for the 2002 election. That may be a mistake, Cox said. Georgia's election results revealed that optical scanners sometimes had higher error rates than the punch card machines Florida wants to replace. And inexplicably, Georgia's optical scanners rejected votes cast by minorities at higher rates than votes cast by whites, she said.

Overall, 94,000 Georgia votes were rejected by machines as "undervotes" because the machines were unable to read the votes for president. That's 3.5 percent of the state's votes — a higher error rate than the 2.9 percent of undervotes in Florida and the 1.9 percent nationwide.

"I'm shocked to learn that the optical scanner is not a plus, it's a minus," said Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.).

New York's "lever" voting machines are more accurate but prone to breaking, causing long lines and frustration at the polls, said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

"The real question is, how can we use technology to improve" the voting system, Cleland said. "The oldest democracy in the world should not have to rely on the oldest voting machines in the world. "There is a technology solution, Cox said. New electronic voting machines have proven to be easy to use, highly accurate and virtually fool proof,she said. But cost will remain a problem for many localities, and nationwide, it could take $3 billion to replace old voting technology. Several election-reform bills have been introduced in Congress, including some that would provide money to states and localities to buy new election equipment.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, introduced the American Voting Standards and Technology Act. It would develop standards for voting equipment and practices and award matching grants for buying new voting systems.

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