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Quarter of voters will use unreliable machines

Scripps Howard News Service
June 21, 2004

- One out of every four voters in November will face the same election machines - some more than 40 years old - and unreliable counting procedures that botched the presidential race in Florida four years ago.

Slow action by Congress, a series of bureaucratic blunders and foot-dragging by many local election officials mean that 575 counties in 27 states are expected to use punch-card and lever-machine voting equipment for at least one more presidential election.

Congress hoped to eliminate most of these machines before November's election. But slower-than-expected modernization of voting equipment is clouding hopes for a clear decision in the 2004 race.

"This certainly has been frustrating," said Kay Maxwell, president of the League of Women Voters of the United States. "We're very concerned that we will face problems again. The likelihood of another close election in November is quite high."

Flaws in counting the 2000 general election were much more widespread than was generally known at the time. At least 1.6 million ballots cast in 38 states did not register a vote for president, according to a study of officially certified election returns by Scripps Howard News Service. Nearly 1.1 million of these so-called "undervotes" were cast on easily damaged cardboard punch cards or mechanical counting devices, some of which date to the early 1960s.

Fewer than half of the 105.4 million voters in the last presidential election used these aging machines, but they accounted for two-thirds of the known undervote.

Several state and local election officials said they are anxious to upgrade to more state-of-the-art electronic touch-screen voting machines or to optically scanned ballot systems.

"These delays are killing us," said Cook County, Ill., Clerk David Orr. "The people want change. But Congress and the White House moved so darned slow on this."

Chicago-area voters suffered the nation's worst single-county tabulation error in the 2000 election, according to the Scripps Howard study. Orr said he blames poorly manufactured punch-card equipment for "the vast majority" of the 122,914 Cook County ballots that did not register a presidential vote.

"This is tough stuff. A lot of people don't understand the complexity of counting votes. I applaud the reforms that Congress passed. But the delays!" said Orr. "It was politics as usual in Washington that resulted in many of these delays."

At issue is the speed with which Congress and the federal bureaucracy implemented the Help America Vote Act intended to pump nearly $3.9 billion into broad reforms over three years. President Bush signed the bill on Oct. 29, 2002, following public outcry at the uncertainties caused by Florida's 178,145-ballot statewide undervote.

The act was landmark legislation - Congress had never before invested directly in local election administration. The bill immediately authorized $325 million for states to replace punch-card and lever voting machines.

The act also required that a four-member U.S. Election Assistance Commission be named within 120 days to allocate the funds, a self-imposed deadline that Congress missed badly. Democratic and Republican leaders did not formally present their nominees to the new commission until Oct. 3, 2003, eight months past the deadline. The nominees were finally approved by the Senate on Dec. 9, 2003 - 406 days after passage of the law.

Then, the newly sworn-in commissioners learned that Congress had not given them an operating budget, so they couldn't meet the new law's stipulation that state reform plans be published in the Federal Register.

"That meant there was $2.3 billion in funding without any mechanism for its release to the states," said DeForest Soaries Jr., the first chairman of the Election Assistance Commission.

"I put the blame on both Congress and the White House," said Kimball Brace, president of the consulting firm Election Data Services Inc. and a legal expert on balloting procedures. "Unfortunately, this is likely to haunt us all come November."

Brace's company, which monitors election equipment in every county, estimates punch cards will still be used this year in 305 counties, areas that had 12.1 million voters in 2000. Mechanical counting machines will still be employed in 270 counties with 13.5 million voters.

The Election Assistance Commission began disbursing federal funding for election reforms by spring this year, giving many state and local governments just six months to make extensive changes in the complicated mechanics of elections.

"Seventy-four percent of the American people will be voting on the exact same equipment that they used in 2000. We know that," Soaries said. "Our job is to respond to reality. Whatever voting devices are in use come November, we must identify the best practices and procedures for each kind of machine."

There is widespread agreement among election officials that delays in establishing and funding the commission have drastically slowed election reform.

"If the money had gone out smoother? If the commission had put together some voting standards sooner? Yeah, I think we would be in a much different place as a nation right now," said Leslie Reynolds, executive director of the National Association of Secretaries of State.

Meanwhile, many local election officials are resisting suggestions that they change from their decades-old associations with punch cards and mechanical counting machines.

Dozens of county election officials contacted in an ongoing study of 2000 election returns by Scripps Howard concede they never compare the number of ballots cast against the number of votes counted. Since they do not know that they suffer chronic undervoting, they see little reason to change their election machinery.

When Thad Cobb, chairman of the Kershaw County, S.C., Commission of Registration and Elections, was told of his county's 8 percent undervote for president, he replied, "I didn't know we had an undercount."

Many officials defend their election results and complain bitterly about the cost of upgrading to new voting equipment.

After being told that her county's undervote stood at 9 percent, four times the national average, Hardin County, Ill., Clerk Mary Ellen Denton rejected suggestions that there was a problem. "That may be your averages and statistics. But I'm not worried about that. I don't think there was any problem with our machines," she said.

Denton complained that new optical scanning equipment would cost about $45,000 and Hardin County's share of the funds from the Help America Vote Act would only be $22,344.

"Where am I going to get the other $20,000? I'll have to borrow it from the bank. I'll have to use the fund I have for computer equipment in my office," she said. "All of this is a handicapping the smaller counties like mine. We run barebones anyway."

Expected to have at least one county with outdated devices are Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington state, West Virginia and Wyoming.

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