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Voting System Results Still Out

Questions about the reliability of electronic ballots combine with changing regulations to fuel confusion and debate over technology.

January 03, 2006|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

Five years after the vote-counting debacle in Florida suspended the election of a new U.S. president, California and other states are embroiled in a contentious debate over how voters should cast their ballots.

The maligned punch cards that snarled the 2000 count are all but gone. But with electronic machines under attack as unreliable and vulnerable to hackers, there is little consensus about what the new technology should look like.

That has left many counties nationwide in turmoil as they struggle with unproven technology while state regulations remain in flux and the federal government offers minimal guidance.

In some places, voters are facing their third balloting system in five years.

In California, counties have lurched from one voting system to another as the state has written and rewritten standards. Several counties are scrambling to redo their June election plans after the state's top elections official raised new questions last month about an electronic voting machine in use for years.

Miami officials talk of scrapping their 3-year-old electronic machines, while Mercer County, Pa., officials want to keep theirs but were ordered by state authorities to take them out of service after glitches during the 2004 presidential election.

"It pretty much left the county up a tree," said Tom Rookey, elections chief of the Steel Belt county on the Ohio border.

In Connecticut, the secretary of state is tussling with the federal government over how quickly the state must replace its decades-old lever-style voting machines with electronic machines.

Indiana's largest county has sued the company that sold it electronic voting machines. Across the border in Ohio, the same company has sued the state.

"It's been crazy," said San Diego County Registrar of Voters Mikel Haas, who said he is returning to paper ballots because the state refused to recertify more than 10,000 electronic machines the county bought two years ago. "Everyone is in uncharted territory here."

The arcane world of voting technology and ballot counting once drew little attention from anyone other than elections officials.

But 2000 changed everything.

"Everyone looked at what was coming out of Florida -- scenes of judges squinting to look at ballots -- and agreed there had to be a better way to do this," said Doug Chapin, head of the nonpartisan Election Reform Information Project. "There was a real push toward computerized paperless machines to get away from these chads."

Congress in 2002 passed the Help America Vote Act, pledging nearly $4 billion to help states upgrade their voting systems. The same year, California passed its own $200-million bond for the same purpose.

The flood of money fueled a nationwide spending spree on high-tech machines that were expected to revolutionize vote counting.

But the machines often have not proved as reliable as hoped.

And while states and counties rushed to buy them, elections officials struggled to regulate how machines should record votes and safeguard results.

Although the Help America Vote Act set up a federal commission to assist the states, the Election Assistance Commission did not come into existence until 2004, more than a year late. And only in December did it release voluntary voting-machine guidelines.

"In voting technology, the pace of innovation was outpacing the regulation," Chapin said.

The result has sometimes been chaotic.

In Orange County, thousands of voters got the wrong ballots when they tried to use the county's electronic machines in March 2004.

In coastal Carteret County, N.C., more than 4,400 electronic votes were lost in the November 2004 election, throwing at least one close statewide race into uncertainty for more than two months.

And in Dade County, Fla., home to Miami and a central battleground in the disputed 2000 presidential election, the elections chief resigned earlier this year amid revelations that a coding glitch in the county's 3-year-old electronic voting system had resulted in hundreds of lost votes in six elections.

The new elections chief, Lester Sola, is talking about replacing the $24.5-million system with paper ballots that can be counted by an optical scanner.

"I think the state may have overreacted," Sola said, explaining that the pressure to replace punch cards caused many elections officials to turn to untested systems. "That created a really difficult situation not only for Miami-Dade but for other Florida counties as well."

Many jurisdictions, to be sure, have seen improvements. And although there were scattered problems in the 2004 presidential election, there were no vote-counting crises on the scale of Florida's 2000 fiasco.

Georgia, which spent $54 million in 2002 to switch to a single electronic voting system, has dramatically reduced the number of so-called lost votes, according to a recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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