As Californians go to the polls today, those casting ballots in 14 counties, home to 43% of the state's 15.1 million registered voters, will use electronic machines -- part of a massive national experiment in new technology that pits the hope of fewer errors against the fear of election-night computer hacking.
Supporters, who include many of the state's registrars, say the new systems promise paperless elections that are cheaper to administer, faster to tally and free of the paper chads that gained infamy in the last presidential election.
Touch screens prompt voters to make selections in all races and let them review their choices, reducing the chance that voters inadvertently will skip a race. The machines also display ballots in multiple languages. Audio units allow blind voters to cast ballots without assistance. Centralized databases allow voters to go to any polling place in their county and cast local ballots.
But some computer scientists and election watchdog groups have raised questions about the security of electronic voting. They contend that the machines are vulnerable to software bugs or "malicious" code and lack the simple guarantee of a paper ballot, which can be recounted and examined by hand.
They point to surprising election results, such as former Democratic Sen. Max Cleland's upset defeat in Georgia's 2002 senatorial race, and question recounts, such as one in January of this year in which 134 blank electronic ballots were cast in a tightly contested race for a Florida state House seat.
In Internet chat groups, electronic voting machines have become the fulcrum of sometimes elaborate conspiracy theories, which lack conclusive evidence, but not ardor, in their insistence that the systems threaten American democracy. But even those who don't go that far urge caution.
"Once a ballot is cast, you can't pull it back out," said David Jefferson, a computer scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who sat on voting technology task forces in California and at the federal level. "After the fact, you cannot recover from problems. It's not like a financial system, where you can take reasonable risks; in voting, you just can't."
In January, computer security experts hired by the Maryland Legislature to test that state's new electronic voting machines reported that they had been able to hack into the system. The team proposed taking short-term measures to secure the machines for use in today's election, but also recommended that some sort of backup, such as a paper trail, be used in the future.
Such concerns have prompted some election authorities, including California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, to add security measures to the electronic voting process. And that has left local officials struggling to defend their systems.
Some experts say that election officials, in a hurry to avoid repeating Florida's agonizing voting problems, rushed into buying electronic voting machines before the technology was ready.
After 2000, "the punch cards in Florida were the target, so the major concern was to get rid of them," said Richard Smolka, a professor emeritus of political science at American University in Washington, D.C., who is involved in election reform efforts. "But the standards weren't there to replace them. They clearly put the cart before the horse."
In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which appropriated $3.9 billion for election reform. A sizable chunk of that was set aside for replacing antiquated voting equipment. State governments provided additional financing; in California that year, voters passed Proposition 41, a $200-million bond measure reserved for upgrading voting systems.
The suddenly available money represented a bonanza in a normally staid industry whose base, according to Caltech economist Thomas Palfrey, is smaller than that of the domestic lawnmower market.
Vendors across America aggressively courted voter registrars, who mostly welcomed the technology. From 2000 to 2002, the number of counties operating some kind of electronic system nearly doubled, from 309 to 547, according to Election Data Services, a consulting firm in Washington, D.C.
By November, about 50 million people nationwide will be able to vote electronically, Election Data Services says.
"The registrars were itching to have the ... money, and they wanted to join the electronic revolution like everyone else," Jefferson said. "I don't begrudge them that, but it made them grasp at this brass ring of clean, chadless elections."
Unlike paper-based systems, with their shuffle of ballot cards, pens or styluses and bulky ballot boxes, electronic systems are straightforward. Voters activate the machines with "smart cards" and navigate their ballots by touching screen displays, tapping keys or spinning selector wheels. Choices are saved to memory cards sealed in the machines.