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One Vote, but Five Ways to Cast It
By TOM ZELLER Jr.  New York Times

Published: October 13, 2004

If Florida's election recount in 2000 was a mess, a recount this year in closely contested Pennsylvania - should it come to that - could create even more chaos.

In 2000, Florida used error-prone punch cards and optical-scan ballots, and variations in the reliability of the two systems added to the recount confusion. On Nov. 2, Pennsylvanians will use five voting methods: paper ballots, punch cards, lever machines, optical-scan systems and electronic systems. Of the half-dozen swing states still considered battlegrounds, Pennsylvania has the most eclectic distribution of voting systems.

Combined with highly decentralized election rules, the patchwork of voting technologies could make a broad, accurate recount difficult in Pennsylvania, whose 21 electoral votes could be crucial to either presidential candidate. The 2000 race was decided by four percentage points - in favor of Al Gore. Polls show Senator John Kerry and President Bush in a statistical dead heat in the state.

Hoping to head off trouble, Gov. Edward G. Rendell signed into law on Friday a bill that would call for an automatic recount if the margin of victory in presidential races, as well as those for several statewide offices, is less than 0.5 percent. And the state's General Assembly last week pushed through 11th-hour legislation intended to establish statewide standards for examining ballots - in whatever form they come - should a recount be necessary.

Given that the state is already embroiled in legal battles over the inclusion of Ralph Nader's name on its absentee ballots, however, post-election court challenges may be inevitable.

"If the race gets any tighter, we could have a nightmare scenario," said G. Terry Madonna, the director of the Keystone Poll at the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. "If it comes down to 10,000 votes, what do you think is going to happen?" Mr. Madonna asked. "Lawyers on both sides are sharpening their pencils and are poised to litigate."

A uniform statewide voting system would not be foolproof. Nearly all counties in Illinois, for instance, used just one technology in the 2000 election - punch cards - and managed to have the highest rate of errant votes in the country, according to a study conducted by the Voting Technology Project, a joint effort by the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But mixed systems - and few are as mixed as Pennsylvania's - come with logistical and constitutional problems that are hard to overcome.

"It's easier to write state law if you have one system you've all agreed to use," said Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of the Voting Technology Project.

Professor Ansolabehere points out that having a variety of voting methods bought from a variety of vendors can help dispel the fears of some voters that a single system is easier to rig. But if a recount is required, he noted, one voting method is demonstrably easier to re-examine than many - and perhaps more fair.

A lingering question about the Florida fiasco is whether it is constitutional to have different voters in a state using different voting methods.

"Using different systems raises profound questions about just what equal protection means," Professor Ansolabehere said. "It's one of those Supreme Court, Constitution-101-type questions that still hasn't been sorted out."

Punch cards, for example, are statistically more likely to produce uncounted votes than lever machines. Does that mean a vote in Allegheny County, Pa., is more likely to be counted than a vote next door in Butler County?

And if a recount is called for, optical-scan cards, paper ballots and even punch cards can be physically examined to try to decipher a voter's intent, on the basis of a scribble, or a partial perforation, near a candidate's name. Lever and touch-screen systems leave behind no such trace of intent. Does that make one type of vote more valuable than another?

David Pottie, a senior program associate in the democracy program at the Carter Center in Atlanta, which assists fledgling democracies in setting up elections and was named for the former president, said that researchers put a premium on uniformity when assessing the soundness of new election systems.

"The typical experience is to have a uniform balloting system in which all eligible voters go to the polls and have essentially the same experience," Mr. Pottie said.

Congress had hoped to reduce the wide range of voting systems when it passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002. That legislation was intended to help states phase out, by 2006, antiquated and error-prone voting systems, particularly punch cards, and to establish uniform national standards for the equipment and the procedures used in national elections.

But in the United States, variation in voting methods remains the norm.

Much of Pennsylvania's variation is owing to the state's constitution, which cedes an unusual amount of control over elections to the 67 counties. While numerous proposals for improving the state's voting machines were discussed in the aftermath of the 2000 election, county officials closely guarded their right to control what system they would use, and so very few changes were made.

"Voters are familiar with their equipment, they've been using it for years and they're comfortable with it," said Douglas E. Hill, the executive director of the state's County Commissioners Association. "We didn't see the voting systems as the problem," Mr. Hill continued, adding that the 11 counties using punch cards even tried to re-create the hanging chad problem in a test after the 2000 election. "They couldn't."

That would not come as a surprise to Jerome Maddox, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania who conducted a study of post-2000 election changes in the state. He concluded, among other things, that Pennsylvanians were often of the mind that if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

"At the national level, there was this real urgency to make changes," Professor Maddox said. But in Pennsylvania, "the locals who administer the elections didn't see it the same way,'' he said. "It was very easy for them to say, 'Look, what's the problem here? This has worked for us.' ''

Still, Pennsylvania has made several voting reforms, like adopting rules governing identification requirements at polling places and creating a statewide voter registration database, although that system is now foundering under the weight of an unprecedented number of new registrations. The state legislature also approved a measure to allow those who do not show up on the registry to cast a vote, and to have those votes counted or discarded after the voter's status is cleared up.

Whether a statewide recount would proceed smoothly, given all of the electronic voting cartridges, lever-machine tallies, scan cards, punch cards and thousands of hand-marked, provisional and absentee ballots that would have to be re-examined, remains to be seen.

Michael I. Shamos, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and a former examiner of electronic voting machines for both Pennsylvania and Texas, seems confident that all hurdles will be overcome.

"Pennsylvania has been, mercifully, relatively trouble-free in its elections," Professor Shamos said by e-mail, "which I hope will continue."

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