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States' Ballot Reform Stalls

More than half still use punch-card machines as $3.9 billion allotted by Congress for upgrades sits mostly idle and the '04 election draws closer.

September 19, 2003|Faye Fiore and Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — When Congress enacted legislation designed to avoid a repeat of the Florida voting debacle of 2000, one of the bill's chief sponsors predicted the dreaded punch-card machines soon would be found only "in the Smithsonian."

But less than 14 months away from the next presidential contest, more than half the states still use the machinery that produced the notorious dimpled, pregnant and hanging chads.

And the vast majority scarcely have begun to upgrade their balloting systems, unable to get access to most of the $3.9 billion Congress allotted for the effort a year ago amid great fanfare and a promise that Florida would "never, never happen again."

"This is the cruelest of all jokes," said R. Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, a nonpartisan group in Houston that works with the nation's election administrators. "We promised the voters we would do something about this. They passed legislation to fix it. But because they have not yet funded what they promised, we have high expectations and low ability to deliver."

California gave the issue a shove earlier this week when a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the postponement of the Oct. 7 gubernatorial recall election because voters in six counties would be using punch-card ballots that the secretary of state has declared obsolete and prone to error.

All that was supposed to end with the Help America Vote Act, which President Bush signed in October. The act was designed to force states to examine their voting machinery, replace antiquated equipment and create databases of registered voters that would ensure accurate, secure elections.

The act created an Election Assistance Commission, to be made up of two Republicans and two Democrats, to guide states through the process and -- most importantly -- hand out the money to help pay for it. But the commission, which was supposed to be up and running seven months ago, has yet to see a single member nominated by Bush, much less confirmed by the Senate.

Meanwhile, all 50 states have drawn up their plans for reform but have nowhere to submit them. And hundreds of millions of dollars sit idle in the Treasury as states from Nevada to Massachusetts struggle to meet a 2006 federal deadline, unable to front the money because of their own paralyzing deficits.

"States don't have enough money to fund all the requirements mandated by the federal government, and the federal government promised the states they would help share the burden," said Kay Albowicz, spokeswoman for the National Assn. of Secretaries of State in Washington. "So far, they haven't kept that promise."

The process of constituting the commission has faltered at every turn.

The parties sent the names of their candidates to the president only recently. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said that Bush intended to nominate all four members soon.

While Help America Vote was enacted with noble aims -- to make it easier for citizens to vote and harder for politicians to cheat -- a string of disasters, from terrorism to recession, moved the comparatively mundane matter of voting reform to Washington's back burners.

Now the appellate judges' decision -- if it is upheld -- has many states worried that they could be forced to move more quickly than they feel is possible to overhaul their election procedures.

"We're already facing problems with time and money in complying with federal directives on election reforms," Barbara J. Reed, the Douglas County, Nev., clerk-treasurer, told the Reno Gazette-Journal. "If this decision holds, it could prompt very swift action."

Some states and cities have made progress on their own.

Florida, which suffered 36 days of national embarrassment during the 2000 election, has replaced old equipment with updated technology and has at least one touch-screen machine that is accessible to disabled voters in every polling place.

Boston plans soon to scrap the 900-pound lever machines it has used since 1946 in favor of optical scanners.

And Georgia has been held up as a model for voter education, putting prototypes of its electronic voting devices in malls and shopping centers so that citizens could get acquainted.

But progress has come too slowly, according to two of the reform law's main sponsors -- Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).

They sent a letter this week urging Congress to appropriate immediately $1.9 billion for election reform. "Without sufficient funding, the important reforms imposed by the bill will not be realized," they wrote.

"We're ready to do the work. We in the states are geared up. But we need the funding," said Minnesota Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer, president of a national group of state election officers. She met with White House officials here Thursday and said afterward that they had promised to do their best but made no commitments.

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