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Fed Law Doesn't Yield E-voting Consistency
Some states buy e-voting machines; others wait for federal guidelines
News Story by Paul Roberts

OCTOBER 25, 2004 (COMPUTERWORLD) - BOSTON Two years after Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) to phase out older voting systems, there is little consistency in the adoption of the law and its provisions. While some states moved quickly to enact HAVA, officials elsewhere are waiting for more guidance to verify which new voting systems meet federal standards.

HAVA addresses myriad problems that tarnished the 2000 presidential election. The act calls for the provisioning of $3.9 billion in federal funds to improve the election process, with $325 million earmarked to replace outdated machines.

While HAVA doesn't mandate particular voting technologies, it does require that new systems be accessible to disabled people by 2006. That requirement prompted many counties to quickly buy new voting equipment, mostly so-called direct recording electronic (DRE) systems with features to accommodate impaired voters.

The federal money for voting systems is especially welcome in poorer states, said Dan Seligson, editor of Electionline.org, a Washington-based nonprofit group that tracks election reform.

In Wyoming, where mechanical-lever voting machines purchased years ago are still in use, HAVA will eventually allow all of the state's 23 counties to upgrade to some form of DRE technology, said Secretary of State Joe Meyer. Currently, only one county uses DRE technology, he said.

In South Carolina, many counties bought early DRE machines in the 1980s using state matching funds and then weren't able to those systems once state funds dried up, said Donna Royson, deputy director of the South Carolina State Election Commission. HAVA money is helping South Carolina move to a uniform system of voting machines statewide, she said.

While HAVA has made money available to help with purchases and speed the replacement of older machines, the legislation has left it up to each state to develop its own plan to comply with the legislation and requires matching funds from states to qualify for federal dollars.

"HAVA sets federal mandates on voting. However, nowhere in the mandates does it say what machines to use, how many there should be per precinct. Frankly, there isn't even a mandate to replace punch cards and lever machines," Seligson said.

Variable Progress

In states with a tradition of top-down management, HAVA has led to uniformity. In states with a tradition of local control, the law's leniency has resulted in a patchwork system of voting technology and slower progress.

"One reason we're a bit slower is because we're reluctant to hand counties unfunded mandates," said Jonathan Black, director of research for the Texas secretary of state's office. "We like to give counties as much choice as possible."

An informal survey by the IDG News Service of counties with DRE machines found wide variability in the number and type of DRE systems to be used this year, with some counties relying on a small number of machines to handle what officials expect to be a record turnout.

The problem, say voting experts, is a system that has long relied on local money rather than federal dollars to fund elections, leading to disparities among counties.

For example, South Carolina is already in the first phase of implementing its HAVA plan, which calls for the deployment of state-purchased iVotronic machines from Election Systems and Software Inc. The plan calls for one iVotronic DRE machine for every 200 voters.

But elsewhere, state governments and localities have put off purchasing DRE equipment as they wait for the federal government to provide more guidance. The result is that states like Maryland and Nevada are using DRE technology statewide, while others, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wyoming, are using it only in certain areas.

"States are all over the map," said Wyoming's Meyer. "HAVA was supposed to have standards to protect us in terms of these voting systems, but now they say they're going to have them in 2005 at the earliest."

Wyoming won't choose new equipment until after the Nov. 2 election, Meyer said.

HAVA sets strong guidelines on issues such as accessibility but is silent on many of the most pressing problems the U.S. election system is facing, leaving it to states and localities to decide which technologies to use and how many machines are needed, Electionline.org's Seligson said.

While HAVA can help people with disabilities and prevent voters from being turned away at the polls, Seligson said, it's unlikely to change disparities regarding which voting systems are used.

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