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Three-Fourths of Voting Machines will be Used Again on Nov. 2

NNPA, News Report,
Hazel Trice Edney, Oct 15, 2004
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Despite the distribution of more than $1.3 billion to 42 states to correct faulty voting machines and make other improvements for next month’s presidential election, approximately 75 percent of voters will use the same machines they used four years ago, a development that worries the chairman of the federal commission overseeing balloting changes.

“In one sense, by Washington standards, we have moved rather quickly when we talk about the things we’ve done,” says DeForest B. Soaries, Jr., chairman of the bi-partisan Election Assistance Commission. “But [given] people’s expectations – and, more importantly, the need to guarantee fair elections - I think we probably have moved more slowly than need demands…I don’t think enough of that has happened this year.”

Soaries, a Black Republican, was appointed to the post last year by President Bush. He says, “It’s been a very challenging start up. I’m proud of the things that we’ve accomplished this year. But this year was ‘04. And I think people’s expectations were that more things would happen since the last election was four years ago.”

The four-member Election Assistance Commission (EAC) was created by the Help America Vote Act, passed two years ago by Congress. The commission’s responsibility is to oversee the distribution of the $3 billion allocated for new voting machines and election improvements as well as establish federal standards for voting machines.

Selecting and confirming the commissioners went so slowly that most states didn’t receive their funds until this year. And standards for new voting machines won’t be in place until 2005, says Soaries, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Somerset, N.J.

The law required that a bi-partisan commission be established. The Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate were to submit names to the White House for President Bush to make appointments.

“And they just didn’t do it in a timely fashion. Neither side. They were both slow,” Soaries says.

After being appointed, the nominees underwent FBI background checks that took four months. By that time, it was late spring of 2003, delaying the confirmations until after the summer recess.

“It created some problems,” says Soaries. “The law assumed in ‘02 that our commission would be in place within six months. But by April 2003, the commission was still not in place. “[We] did not start our work until January of ’04,” he says.

Some money was distributed to the states in 2003 by the General Services Administration. But the bulk of the $1.3 billion was distributed over the past four months, too late for most states to replace or alter their voting equipment. More than $1 billion remain unspent by the commission. The total allocation was $3 billion for 2003 and 2004 fiscal budgets. Congress has not allocated any funds for 2005 because previously allocated funds have yet to be spent.

Alaska, Arizona, New York, Oklahoma, Illinois, Hawaii, South Dakota and Utah are the only states that have not received funding. Commission officials say that’s because the states have not applied or failed to prove they need the federal funds.

In addition to purchasing equipment, the funds can go toward poll-worker training, voter education or other activities designed to enhance the voting process. .

For example, Florida has gotten rid of its controversial punch card ballots that caused problems during the 2000 recount.

Even the new machines may create problems.

“What it means is that 25 percent of the country will vote on brand new equipment, equipment that they’ve never seen before,” Soaries explains. “The challenge there, of course, is to make sure that these people in these districts are familiar with the equipment before Election Day to assure that they don’t walk in for the first time and see a machine that is so different or so confusing that it hinders their right to vote.”

Florida, Nevada and Georgia have allowed the public to practice on their machines.

“I don’t think we can do enough to make sure that people aren’t shocked when they come to the polling place in November and see – for the first time – equipment that confuses them,” Soaries says. “The 75 percent who will vote on the same machines, we want to make sure they don’t have some of the problems that they had in 2000. We’ve sent a document to every election official in the country giving them examples of how to get it right.”

Although more than a million ballots are believed to have been lost in Election 2000, it is still unknown whether one machine works better than another.

“No one ever collected that data,” Soaries says. “For the first time in history, we will, on Election Day, collect data about what’s happening with voting equipment. How often does any particular type of machine break down? Where do we have problems and how many who use that type of equipment have problems?”

Soaries says the commission will also be counting the number of people who vote, which is also something that he says has never been done before. He says state election directors will be asking local election officials to give them the numbers of everyone who votes on Nov. 2.

“Counting will indicate if something is wrong,” he says. “If certain neighborhoods had significantly lower numbers vote for president than for the Senate, that gives you some sense that there’s something further that needs to be investigated. You can look for fraud, you can look for glitches in equipment, you can look for intimidation, you can look for any number of things. But if you don’t have the data, then you don’t even know to look.”

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