Technology on the ballot

Low funding, legislative recesses and complex electoral reform issues have slowed the road to chad-free voting machines

Nearly 1,600 election reform bills have been introduced in state legislatures

across the country in the last six months, illustrating a concerted effort

by lawmakers to clean up and streamline voting procedures.

And although technology has been ballyhooed as a possible solution to

problems that surfaced during last year's presidential election, it has

played a lesser role during this legislative session.

"It's certainly a piece that's gotten the most attention. I guess it's

the most visible part of the elections process," said Jennifer Drage, a

policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures (www.ncsl.org),

referring to new voting technologies. "But it's really a small part of the

whole equation."

Of the 1,600 or so election reform bills NCSL has been tracking, most

legislative reforms have focused on improving poll worker recruitment and

training and better voter education, said Drage. Legislatures are also considering

uniform standards for counting and recounting, better voter registration

systems, redesigned ballots and improved absentee voting.

By far, most of the bills have called for the creation of task forces,

commissions and interim committees to continue to study the issue, according

to NCSL. Twenty-eight states have proposed a total of at least 75 bills

for studying election laws.

But at least 31 states have considered or are mulling legislation to

upgrade or standardize their voting systems. And at least 23 states have

or are currently thinking about mail or Internet voting.

By now, about two-thirds of the state legislatures have adjourned for

the year, but many may establish interim committees to continue to study

the issue and introduce legislation before the next session.

And whether or not legislatures are ready to cut checks for it, November's

election problems sparked a new market for modern voting equipment. Several

companies have stepped up development and marketing of new technologies,

mainly direct recording electronic, or DRE, equipment. Most notably, Dell

Computer Corp. and Hart InterCivic have partnered to exclusively sell a

product called eSlate, which company officials say is more reliable, durable,

accessible and easier to use than other products (see box at right). Accenture

and election.com have also joined to develop new voting software and technology.

Several states have enacted significant reform packages, most notably

Florida, where counting and recounting problems last November precipitated

the current nationwide election self-examination. On May 9, the state enacted

the most comprehensive package of all, said Drage, adding, "Florida's probably

further ahead than anyone else right now."

Among its numerous provisions, the new state law bans the much-maligned

punch card voting system and other archaic machines and provides $24 million

to Florida's 67 counties during the next two years to modernize their systems.

The state hopes some counties will have something in place by September

2002.

An April study, sponsored by the Collins Center for Public Policy and

the James Madison Institute, found that Florida voters considered voting

technology, standardized recount rules and a statewide uniform ballot design

as top priorities for the state.

Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South

Florida and head of the study, said the new law doesn't specify or advocate

any particular voting system as long as it's certified by the state Division

of Elections.

Currently, the only state-certified voting technology is the optical

scan system, where a voter uses a writing utensil to mark or fill in a box

on a paper form, which is then read by a computerized device that records

the marks. Many larger counties, MacManus said, want to install DRE machines

where voters make their selections by pressing buttons or using a touch-sensitive

screen.

She said the legislature has also earmarked $2 million for creation

of a statewide online voter registration database that would be operational

by June 1, 2002, and be maintained by the elections division. It would address

such problems as voters being registered twice or not being registered at

all, she said.

Some other elements of Florida's law include $6 million to counties

for voter education and poll worker recruitment and training, the creation

of a statewide uniform ballot design, standards for voting overseas and

the establishment of new uniform recount provisions.

Drage said several other states — including South Dakota, Kansas, Indiana

and Colorado — have enacted similar laws to create computerized voter registration

databases that will primarily be maintained by each state's secretary of

state.

Chris Riggall, spokesman for Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox, said

problems in last year's election were not limited to Florida. He said a

comprehensive statewide study in Georgia showed a wide variation of undervotes

and overvotes from county to county, indicating a possible problem with

voting accuracy.

In April, Georgia enacted legislation mandating a statewide uniform

system of voting. Counties currently use different systems, including punch

card, lever and optical scan. Riggall said election officials believe DRE

systems are the best prospect to address some of the problems in that state.

According to Riggall, "If you're going to [use] universal voting systems,

then why not employ the systems that are indeed the most modern and engineered

in a way to reduce, as much as possible," the chances of voters making errors,

or of legitimate votes being misread?

Touch-screen DRE machines provide some type of interaction, he said.

For example, if a voter tries to vote for more than one candidate in a race,

the machine would not allow it. If a voter neglects to vote in a race, the

machine would give the voter a notice to that effect. There would also be

a confirmation screen to make sure votes were cast correctly.

This fall, Georgia's leaders will institute a pilot project to test

various DRE machines, from five different vendors, at a cost of $200,000.

The project will encompass 13 cities, 32 precincts and 70,000 registered

voters for various mayoral, city council, school board and other elections.

Officials expect up to 275 units to be installed in the cities.

Georgia's law doesn't mention funding, said Riggall, adding that a statewide

system could cost from $35 million to $150 million. "We just don't know

the answer to that," he said.

Maryland also endorsed legislation for a uniform statewide voting system,

the costs of which would be split between the counties and the state.

Federally, two election reform bills have been combined into one — the

Bipartisan Federal Election Reform Act — that would administer $2.5 billion

in grants to states to upgrade their voting systems. Under the bill, a 12-member

blue ribbon panel would study all aspects of election systems and administration

and make recommendations within six months. Drage said states would welcome

federal money as long as it doesn't come with a lot of mandates.

Internet voting hasn't fared so well this legislative season. MacManus

said her study showed that Florida voters — regardless of age — were "very,

very against" Internet voting, primarily for security reasons and probably

more so since the state is sensitive to fraud issues. Riggall echoed the

same opinion.

Drage said the issue is being talked about throughout legislatures,

but not seriously. Several bills have been introduced, but most have stalled

or failed. "We're just not ready for it," she said. "There are security

issues, voter fraud, coercion. Not all voters are ready to trust the Internet."

But she said Internet voting might be more viable for overseas voters.

Alabama introduced a bill allowing overseas armed forces and citizens to

vote via the Internet and authorized the secretary of state to establish

a pilot project. The bill passed the Senate, but was referred to a state

House of Representatives committee. Several other states have introduced

similar measures.

Drage said people believe Internet voting will eventually become a viable

system to complement traditional voting methods. But regardless of the advances

in technology, she said she didn't think it is the only solution to election

problems and that lawmakers realize this.

"Lawmakers are voters too, and they're just as concerned [that] their

votes count," she said. "The issue appears a lot simpler from the outside,

but once you get into it, it gets more complicated. The real issue is not

technology. All election equipment that has been tested and certified by

the Federal Election Commission is accurate to one vote within one million.

That's provided the equipment is properly stored and maintained...and people

[are] trained to use it."

Attention hasn't shifted away from buying new machines, she said, but

it now includes better training for poll workers and better education on

how to cast a vote.

She said the NCSL task force and several other national organizations

studying election reform have pledged to coordinate efforts to make sure

the issue remains a priority. NCSL's task force might even become semi-permanent

so it can continue addressing this issue.

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