New Laws and Machines May Spell Voting Woes

Published: October 19, 2006

WASHINGTON, Oct. 18 — New electronic voting machines have arrived in Yolo County, Calif., but there is one hitch: the audio program for the visually impaired in some of them works only in Vietnamese.

“Talk about panic,” said Freddy Oakley, the county’s top election official. “I’ve got gray-haired ladies as poll workers standing around looking stunned.”

As dozens of states are enforcing new voter registration laws and switching to paperless electronic voting systems, officials across the country are bracing for an Election Day with long lines and heightened confusion, followed by an increase in the number of contested results.

In Maryland, Mississippi and Pennsylvania, a shortage of technicians has vendors for new machines soliciting applications for technical support workers on job Web sites like Ms. Oakley, who is also facing a shortage, raided the computer science department at the University of California, Davis, hiring 60 graduate students as troubleshooters.

Arizona, California, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania are among the states considered most likely to experience difficulties, according to voting experts who have been tracking the technology and other election changes.

“We’ve got new laws, new technology, heightened partisanship and a growing involvement of lawyers in the voting process,” said Tova Wang, who studies elections for the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan research group. “We also have the greatest potential for problems in more places next month than in any voting season before.”

Election officials in many of the states are struggling with delays in the delivery of machines before the election as old-fashioned lever and punch-card machines are phased out. A chronic shortage of poll workers, many of them retirees uncomfortable with new technology, has worsened matters.

Wendy S. Noren, the top election official for Boone County, Mo., which includes Columbia, said delays in the delivery of new machines had left her county several weeks behind schedule and with 600 poll workers yet to be trained. Ms. Noren said she also had not yet been provided with the software coding she needed to print the training manuals.

“I think we will make it,” she said, “but my staff is already at the point of passing out, and the sprint is just starting.”

New computerized registration rolls and litigation over new voter identification laws in states like Arizona, Georgia, Indiana and Missouri have left many poll workers and voters unclear about the rules, including whether they are in effect, as the courts have blocked many of the new laws.

“We’re expecting arguments at the polls in these states that will slow everything down and probably cause large numbers of legitimate voters to be turned away or to be forced to vote on provisional ballots,” said Barbara Burt, an elections reform director for Common Cause.

Meanwhile, votes in about half of the 45 most competitive Congressional races, including contests in Florida, Georgia and Indiana, will be cast on electronic machines that provide no independent means of verification.

“In a close race, a machine error in one precinct could leave the results in doubt and the losing candidates won’t be able to get a recount,” said Warren Stewart, policy director for VoteTrustUSA, an advocacy group that has criticized electronic voting.

Deborah L. Markowitz, president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, was less inclined to sound the alarm. She said that since it was not a presidential election year and many states had encouraged voting by mail, fewer people would turn up at the polls than in 2004.

With computerized registration rolls, Ms. Markowitz said, there will be far fewer people incorrectly excluded from the new databases compared with when registration rolls were on paper.

“There will be isolated incidents, there is no doubt about that,” she said. “But over all the system will move faster and with fewer problems.”

Charles Stewart, head of the political science department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published a study this year indicating that from 2000 to 2004, new technology helped reduce the number of improperly marked ballots by about one million votes.

“If you think things are bad and worrisome now, they were much worse before 2000,” Mr. Stewart said, adding that breakdowns in the mechanics of voting are simply more highlighted, not more prevalent.

Still, this is a year of firsts for some local election officials. Cherie Poucher, elections director for Wake County, N.C., which includes Raleigh, said she expected 350,000 voters on Election Day, up from the 30,000 in the May primary. She worries that the county’s 218 optical scan machines may be unable to handle the increased load. During the primary, 12 of the new machines would not boot up and needed to be replaced.

“In the end, we were lucky,” Ms. Poucher said. The machines were replaced within hours, she said, and since her county uses optical scan machines rather than paperless machines, voters were able to deposit paper ballots into a ballot box until replacements arrived.

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Go to Election GuideMore Politics News News From Congressional Quarterly“I’m an optimist,” she said. “But if we have more failures than we have total machines, it could be really difficult even with the paper ballots.”

Ms. Burt of Common Cause said there was some disagreement about the likelihood of problems, and difficulty in predicting where problems might emerge, in part because there is little uniformity in how elections are conducted.

Except for rudimentary federal rules on voting age, federal financing for states and counties, and protections for minorities and the disabled, elections are shaped by a variety of local laws, conflicting court rulings and technological choices.

“People might refer to it as a national election system but in truth there is no such thing,” Ms. Burt said.

Justin Levitt, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said that on election night his organization will be keeping particularly close watch on North Carolina, Florida and South Dakota, because of new voter registration databases there.

Under the federal Help America Vote Act passed in 2002, election officials were required to create computerized statewide voter registration rolls. These databases were intended to help streamline registration and decrease fraud, and they help political parties track potentially supportive voters. In some states, however, the databases have blocked large numbers of eligible voters from joining registration lists.

North Carolina, for example, requires that information provided by voters for registration forms match information in the motor vehicle or Social Security databases.

“If someone is listed with their maiden name in one list and their married name in another list, that voter will be blocked from the eligible voter roll,” said Mr. Levitt, adding that these voters may show up in large numbers and not realize that there is a problem.

“I certainly don’t see a disaster, but frankly I’m very concerned,” said Ion Sancho, supervisor of elections in Leon County, Fla., which includes Tallahassee. He said Florida has tried three times to create databases of eligible and ineligible voters but each system has had widespread inaccuracies.

“This is our fourth attempt and I’m worried that voters who have been voting for the last decade will show up at the polls and they won’t be listed anywhere,” Mr. Sancho said.

A report released last Thursday by the Century Foundation, Common Cause and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights cited concerns that most states have only vague, if any, standards for voting machine distribution.

There is no federal minimum for the ratio of voters to machines and there is wide variation in state standards.

In Wisconsin, the law requires at least one machine for every 200 registered voters. In Michigan, that ratio is 1:600, the report said. Election officials in Ohio, which had some of the longest lines in 2004, passed a law this year setting the ratio at 1:175, the report said. But the law does not take effect until 2013.

Keith A. Cunningham, director of the Allen County board of elections in Ohio and former president of the Ohio Association of Election Officials, said most counties were close to the ratio required by the law.

“I don’t believe it is going to be as bad as everyone is predicting,” Mr. Cunningham said.

Whether there are problems or not, post-election litigation is likely. A study released this year by the Washington and Lee Law Review found that the number of court cases challenging elections has risen in recent years. In 2004, the number was 361, up from 104 cases in 1998.

Jonah Goldman, a lawyer and elections expert with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said his organization is prepared for the worst. With the N.A.A.C.P. and the People for the American Way Foundation, the lawyers group will have about 500 people fielding calls to a national hot line (1-866-OUR-VOTE) about problems and providing information to voters and poll workers.

In 2004, a similar hot line fielded more than 200,000 calls and created a database of about 40,000 reported problems. The coalition is dispatching lawyers in a dozen states to address reports of voter intimidation or to see if litigation is needed to extend hours at polling stations.

“We’re not sure what we will be handling,” Mr. Goldman said. “But we’re pretty confident that there will be no shortage of work that night.”