WASHINGTON – When President Bush signed election reform legislation in October 2002,he did so hoping Americans would vote for their next president by touching a computer screen and that the ballot problems of the 2000 election would not be repeated.
But less than one year from Election Day 2004,it looks as if his hopes won't be met.
While states wait on Congress to allocate funds set aside by the Help America Vote Act,concerns about the security and reliability of new computer voting machines have led election reform experts to believe Election Day 2006 is a more likely goal.
“Congress was unrealistic in passing this bill and thinking that things could happen so quickly,” said Kimball Brace,president of Election Data Services,a political consulting firm that analyzes voting system data. “Election administration doesn't always work that way.”
With memories of Florida fresh in the minds of members of Congress,the Help America Vote Act was enacted to help local governments replace antiquated voting systems with new,more efficient methods.
The law authorizes Congress to provide $3.86 billion to the states for reforms.
So far,states have received $650 million of the nearly $1.5 billion appropriated in 2003. The remaining $833 million sits in the national treasury awaiting confirmation of four nominees to an election assistance commission,the body that will allocate the rest of funds and provide guidance.
But the congressional delay has pushed hefty implementation costs onto the counties,Brace said.
“The counties are caught in a bind,” Brace said. “The requirements are there,but none of the money has really been provided like what was promised.”
This has caused many states to hold back from drafting statewide implementation plans and contracting with voting system companies,he said.
According to a report Election Data Services released last month,20 percent of U.S. registered voters cast their votes on electronic machines during the 2002 election. Of the 3,123 counties in the report,510 had electronic voting systems.
The rest used one of the six other types of voting systems,including punch cards,lever machines or paper ballots.
Georgia is the only state that has created a statewide plan to implement electronic voting in all of its 159 counties.
Glitches in the machines also have led some states – such as North Dakota,which did not include an implementation strategy in its HAVA state plan – to think twice about the technology.
“The effect really has been that many states that were moving towards purchasing touch screens … have,if not hit the brake,at least taken their foot off the accelerator,” said Doug Chapin,director of electionline.org,an election reform Web site.
Touch-screen machines failed to accept and record votes as a result of programming glitches during several recent state and local elections.
In Fairfax County,Va.,it took election officials 21 hours to count votes from 225 precincts after election workers sent results via modem at the same time,causing the central computer to overload. Election workers ended up reporting the votes from each location by telephone.
“We had candidates not knowing whether they won or lost well into the evening,” said Gerald Connolly,a Democratic member of the county Board of Supervisors who was elected chairman Nov. 4.
Election workers also had problems with 10 of the 1,000 machines the county recently bought for $3.5 million from Advanced Voting Solutions Inc. of Frisco,Texas. Against election rules,officials removed the 10 malfunctioning machines from polling places and took them to election headquarters for repair.
Despite the brief meltdown,election officials were able to retrieve votes cast on the troublesome machines,said Margaret Luca,Board of Elections secretary.
“We know for a fact that every vote was cast and collected,” she said. “In the end,every machine worked,even if it went down briefly.”
The new voting machines,which resemble laptop computers,are similar to old machines that also had problems,Connolly said.
“You're going to have glitches… but we want to try to make sure,however,that we minimize those and try to eliminate them,” he said. “The technology is an exciting technology,but we've just got to make sure it works flawlessly.”
In Johnson County,Mo.,machines made by Diebold Election Systems of North Canton,Ohio miscounted hundreds of votes,and election results were misreported in six races. A recount was ordered,and election officials counted every vote by hand after printing an image of each ballot.
The county also no longer transmits results via modem; instead,they are hand delivered to the central office.
The security of computer voting machines also has been called into question.
A study released over the summer raised concerns that touch-screen voting machines can be tampered with or “hacked” into.
Avi Rubin,an associate professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University and the report's chief author,warned that voting systems such as those manufactured by Diebold lack secure computer language. Rubin said the software could be easily changed to miscount votes.
Diebold criticized Rubin's report,saying it made false assumptions and relied on inadequate research based on a previous model of its touch-screen machine.
“We entered the election systems business knowing that our technology and 144 years of broad experience in security would help ensure the integrity of the vote and accuracy of the election process,” said Thomas W. Swidarski,president of Diebold Election Systems,in a news release.
But many still believe voting machines should provide some form of verification that a voter's ballot was in fact cast. They question how election workers know votes are counted when the computers don't produce a paper record of it.
California's state plan requires that each electronic voting machine provide a paper ballot trail for recounts and random audits of election results.
Brace said he thinks other states will follow suit,and voting system vendors will be forced to make machines that produce a paper trail.
“There's a lot of pressure coming down on everybody,” he said. “And it unfortunately may not be a pretty sight in 2004. We may have a close election and then go through the same kind of process that we went through in Florida in 2000. And unless we have something to count,that becomes an even bigger problem.”
Diebold and other vendors continue to rebut critics’ knocks by reminding citizens and legislators of the many features touch-screen machines possess that other systems do not.
For example,each machine weighs only about eight pounds and can be easily moved to accommodate handicapped voters. Punch-card stations weigh up to 200 pounds each.
Some computers also are equipped with a feature called audio-voice guidance for visually impaired and illiterate voters. The voter casts a ballot by listening to options through headphones.
Additionally,some voting machines allow voters to cast their ballots in more than seven languages.
“With all the security concerns,suddenly there is a concern that maybe those accessibility and multilingual abilities might not be worth the at-least-alleged problems,” Chapin said.
All of these questions will weigh on the minds of legislators as they begin to spend the money for reforms,he said.
“Even if it were proven tomorrow that theses machines were secure,there's enough of a public perception that the machines aren't secure that governments who are looking at committing not hundreds of thousands,but millions of dollars … have to be very careful before they commit those funds,” Chapin said.
In the meantime,election officials and representatives from vendors such as Diebold and AVS are working together to iron out glitches.
Connolly said Fairfax County officials are still deciding how to approach the issue.
“I think we have to sit down with the vendor and analyze what went wrong and insist on a plan of action for correction,” he said. “You want to make sure all of those votes are counted and counted correctly. And while the technology did that,it was not without problem. And we've got to make sure those problems get ironed out.”
Chapin said he is skeptical that states will see much change in 2004.
“I would be surprised if the bulk of the heavy lifting were not done in 2005 and 2006,” Chapin said. “2004 is a waypoint,not an endpoint.”