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Poll finds scattered vote errors, widespread cynicism

Scripps Howard News Service
August 04, 2004

- With malfunctioning voting machines and confusion over registration plaguing millions of Americans, most voters believe the ballot-counting problems discovered in Florida four years ago can actually occur nationwide, a new poll finds.

Slightly more than 6 percent of participants in a survey reported problems at the polls at some point since they began voting, a figure that would translate to nearly 7 million voters nationwide based on turnout in the presidential election four years ago.

California grape-grower Natalie Schmitt, among 800 registered voters contacted by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University, doubts new electronic touch-screen voting machines counted her ballot correctly five months ago.

"I put that plastic credit card they gave me into the machine. Then I noticed some of the candidate's names were missing on the screen," said Schmitt, 40, of American Canyon, Calif. "They gave me a new card, I put it in, and the machine froze up completely."

Schmitt was given a third magnetic card during the March 2 state primaries. The touch-screen machine seemed to work and Schmitt couldn't identify any missing candidates. "But, to be honest, I really don't think my vote was counted right," she said.

Schmitt is among 51 voters who reported they have experienced mechanical problems at the polls or who have been denied ballots because of registration problems, according to a survey of 800 registered voters. The survey was designed to gauge the number of voter complaints similar to those found in Florida during the 2000 presidential election.

"I'm pleased the number wasn't any higher. Of course, the number should be zero," said League of Women Voters President Kay Maxwell. "We're concerned that the registration lists aren't as accurate as they should be. And, of course, all equipment should be in working order, no matter what kind of voting machine is used."

The poll, sponsored by Scripps Howard News Service, found 26 percent said it is either "very likely" or "somewhat likely" that at least one of their ballots has been inaccurately tabulated in past elections. Fifty-seven percent believe Florida-like voting problems "sometimes" or "often" occur elsewhere in America.

Federal officials and election experts said these results are sobering.

"This survey describes the tip of the iceberg. We have some real issues, some real problems with voter confidence," said Deforest Soaries Jr., chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, created by Congress to fix the voting problems discovered in Florida four years ago.

Others downplay the problem. "Voting in America is highly accurate. Ballots are correctly counted in far, far higher numbers than this survey would indicate," said Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, a nonprofit training group for state and local election officials. "This is a perception problem we all are going to have to work on."

The most common complaints cited in the poll were frustrations over inaccurate voter registration, unexpected changes in polling place locations, complex and confusing ballots and a variety of mechanical failures with voting equipment.

Among the voters' complaints:

- Barry Becker, 54, of Bloomington, Ind., said he had to "throw a fit" with poll workers to keep his voting rights two years ago. "They changed the polling place at the last minute," Becker said. He hurried from City Hall to a nearby library, got in the door, stood in line, but was told he was too late. "I guess the poll workers wanted to go home. They finally let me vote. But at least four or five people in front of me didn't get to vote that night," he said.

- Carolyn Hughes, 62, of Gulfport, Miss., thought her voting registration was correctly recorded when she applied for a driver's license after moving from Indiana. But she was denied a ballot in a local election and instructed by a polling worker to re-register because her so-called "motor-voter" application was only good for national elections. "I was very upset," Hughes said.

- Retired poll worker Lydia Bridges, 79, of Albany, Mo., said she couldn't vote on a new, high-tech optical scanner machine six years ago. "The machine stopped working. I don't know if it was overfed, or what. They needed someone to straighten out the machine's digestive system, I guess," Bridges said.

- Marilyn Stanley, 40, of Los Altos, Calif., is sure some of her votes were lost because she wasn't careful to remove all of the infamous "chads" from her punch-card ballots. "It wasn't until the whole Florida situation came out that I realized it," Stanley said. "I can't blame anyone else but myself. I just know I left some of the chads hanging."

- Chester Rayco, 82, said he's had problems getting the levers to turn correctly on the mechanical counting machines used for generations in Philadelphia. "Those machines had to be 50 years old and they'd jam up. We've had to call repairmen to try to fix them," Rayco said.

In all, 3 percent of voters in the poll said they have been denied ballots because of registration problems and 4 percent said they have experienced technical difficulties with machines or were confused by ballot design or wording. Four of these 51 voters said they experienced both problems.

Maxwell said the League of Women Voters soon will begin a "Safeguard the Vote" campaign urging voters to take action to protect their ballot rights. "We believe that the problems that do exist are correctable and that good people are working hard to fix them," she said.

The poll also found that the rancorous debate created by attempts to recount the presidential vote in Florida four years ago has prompted much wider cynicism in the accuracy of elections than might be warranted from voters' experiences at the polls.

Participants in the survey were asked, "How likely do you think it is that at least one of your votes was not correctly counted?" Eight percent said a miscount of one of their ballots is "very likely," 18 percent said "somewhat likely" and 65 percent said "somewhat unlikely" or "very unlikely. Eight percent were undecided.

Voters were also told: "You may remember the problems the state of Florida experienced four years ago when counting votes for president. Do you think such vote-counting problems often occur in other places in America, sometimes occur, rarely occur or never occur in other places?"

Twelve percent said Florida's problem "often occur" elsewhere, 45 percent said "sometimes," 28 percent said "rarely," 7 percent said "never" and 8 percent were undecided.

"Those results were caused by the drumbeat of negative news coverage of the last four years," said Lewis. "There has been an overload of criticism of the election process."

The poll found that young voters, Democrats, people independent of party loyalties, and liberals or political moderates generally were twice as likely to believe their votes may not have counted correctly than were conservatives, older voters, and people loyal to the Republican Party.

Hispanics and black voters were also twice as likely to believe their votes may have been lost as were non-Hispanic white voters.

The survey was conducted June 20-28 among 1,007 adult residents of the United States, among whom 800 are registered voters who have cast a ballot in at least one election. Residents of all 50 states and the District of Columbia were interviewed by telephone.

The project was funded by a grant from the Scripps Foundation. The poll has a margin of error of 4 percentage points. For more information about the poll, visit www.newspolls.org.

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