Lack of training, planning could cause more damage than old tech.
Without proper policies and procedures to fully train state and local officials, e-voting technology could further damage citizens' confidence in elections, experts said.
In the wake of the voting problems that threw the 2000 presidential election into disarray, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002 to assist local jurisdictions with upgrading their election machines to electronic machines, such as touch-screen systems.
Officials from several states who are rushing the work to prepare for the 2004 elections, however, are not prepared to deal with the inevitable complications that come with a new process, said David Orr, clerk for Cook County, Ill., the second-largest U.S. county. "You can't rush into this stuff," he said.
HAVA was intended to restore voter confidence following the 2000 presidential election. But election agencies, focused more on whether the technology works than whether people know how to use it, could do even more damage, said Amy Santenello, a senior research analyst at Meta Group Inc.
"The one issue that is guaranteed to come out of the [November] presidential election is e-voting," she said.
Behind the scenes, state officials planning to shift to e-voting must ensure their counties have the technology infrastructure to support it.
In some cases, "it's going to bring a technological revolution to some of our counties," said Brad King, co-director of the Indiana Election Division. Some of those counties are still struggling to install information technology infrastructures that extend beyond hooking up a fax machine, he said.
County officials who have already invested in new technology are wary of upcoming changes. Some have already spent millions of dollars on new systems and are now worried that their state officials will choose technology that is not compatible. Others are concerned that their state's IT infrastructure will not be able to handle the statewide voter registration database required under HAVA, King said.
Once the technology is in place, election officials often find that it helps solve many long-standing problems that they have faced as districts and populations change, such as meeting the needs of voters with disabilities.
Officials are finding that the real problem is how to make the technology fit into a people-based process, Orr said.
"This isn't an environment where you've got well-trained, experienced engineers" using the technology, he said. In fact, in Cook County, the average age of the polling station workers is over 70, he said.
Officials and experts said that volunteer training is the primary culprit for the problems in e-voting pilot tests conducted nationwide, including the recent failures in California.
"While there were challenges with the security and technology, the larger issue was with the training," Santenello said.
The lack of on-site guidance when polling place volunteers were confronted with situations they didn't recognize had a significant impact in San Diego, where voter confidence in e-voting systems is now effectively gone, Orr said.
Santenello agreed. "When you're first rolling out these systems, you need to have someone on site on whom you can rely," she said.
Under HAVA, states have until 2006 to put the new e-voting process in place. That may not be enough time to make all of the necessary policy changes, training and outreach to citizens, said Bob Terwilliger, auditor in Washington state's Snohomish County.
The political push to proceed with
e-voting as soon as the end of the year only compounds the problem, Santenello said.
"Cities and states really haven't had the time to roll out these systems effectively," she said. "It's just a tough position for them to be in — they really need to wait until the bugs are worked out and the policies are in place."
The federal government is just as much to blame for the confusion, because local officials have yet to be provided with the national requirements establishing an audit trail that will validate every vote, Santenello said.
Local officials are faced with widely varying state and county requirements in the audit trail area that could force them to create a redundant paper process for the new electronic process, Orr said.
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