WASHINGTON — Ambitious efforts to modernize the nation's patchwork voting system were finally supposed to pay big dividends in the 2006 congressional balloting, but instead election day could bring a new round of problems, confusion and partisan rancor.
Unproven electronic voting machines, stricter voter identification requirements in many states, new databases and partisan disputes over registration campaigns are all contributing to the concern. So are the closely divided nature of the American electorate and the rising stakes in this year's voting as Democrats appear poised for major gains.
"The Nov. 7 election promises to bring more of what voters have come to expect since the 2000 elections: a divided body politic, an election system in flux, and the possibility -- if not certainty -- of problems at polls nationwide," said a report released today by the nonpartisan Election Reform Information Project.
"As the midterm elections approach, machine failures, database delays and foul-ups, inconsistent procedures, new rules and new equipment have some predicting chaos at the polls at worst and widespread polling place snafus at best," said the report, which was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and is available on the Internet at electionline.org.
Some election officials insist such pessimistic predictions are overblown.
"It is a lot of new technology," said Deborah L. Markowitz, president of the National Assn. of Secretaries of State. "But we did have test drives, which were our primary elections this summer and fall, and by and large, things went pretty well." Markowitz, a Democrat, is Vermont's secretary of state.
But Caltech political science professor Michael Alvarez said election systems in most states remain works in progress, and goals for preventing another debacle like Florida's ballot counting in the 2000 presidential election have yet to be reached.
"States have made some progress, and you continue to see some improvement. But it doesn't appear that we have fully fixed a lot of the problems with voting," said Alvarez, who is co-director of the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project.
"The bottom line here is that we are in a period of closely contested elections in the American body politic," Alvarez added. "Nobody would care about this if elections weren't so close."
In another reflection of the concern, a group of 10 technical experts wrote to Congress last month urging that lawmakers consider the adoption of quality control standards for electronic voting. One such safeguard would involve checking the electronic vote total against a statistically valid random sample of paper ballots verified by voters before they leave the polling place.
"We see the election process in the United States at grave risk," wrote the technical experts, an informal group of quality control consultants, spearheaded by Larry P. English, president of Information Impact International, a data and information management firm in Brentwood, Tenn.
"The 2004 elections revealed many different types of failure in automated technologies," the group wrote. "The 2006 [primaries] saw electronic vote counts that were changed several times. The truth is that introduction of automation increases the need to manage the reliability and accuracy of the election process as a whole."
Researchers at the Election Reform Information Project focused on three major areas in which local, state and federal officials have labored to improve the accuracy and reliability of voting: electronic voting, voter identification and the creation of databases of eligible voters.
Electronic voting was supposed to eliminate the spectacle of hanging chads -- the partially punched paper ballots that perplexed Florida officials after the 2000 vote. But one widely adopted method, the touch-screen voting known as DRE -- or direct recording electronic -- has raised concerns about security and reliability. Most states require a paper backup for votes cast on such systems.
Requirements for voters to show identification at the polls are also on the rise, with 23 states requiring some form of ID, compared with 11 in 2000. But the rules vary greatly from state to state. Some are being challenged in court on grounds that they may be used to intimidate legitimate voters. And many longtime voters may be unfamiliar with recent changes.
Under a 2002 federal law, states were required to create databases of all registered voters in their jurisdictions in an attempt to deter fraud, eliminate duplicate registrations and keep voter lists up to date. But the transition has proven more difficult than expected, partly because of mundane problems such as name changes and data entry errors.
As a result, there is concern that some voters may show up on election day only to find they have been purged from the list.