WASHINGTON—Punch card voting machines that caused chaos in the 2000 presidential election have been replaced by high-tech touch screen balloting in some places, but critics warn the new technology could cause even greater mayhem.
Election observers hope that the November 2 balloting will avoid a repeat of the 2000 election debacle, when officials in Florida had to hand-inspect ballots partially perforated with “chads” created by aging manual voting machines.
The disputed Florida ballots created weeks of post-election turmoil, and required intervention by the US Supreme Court to determine the outcome of the squeaker presidential election.
The fiasco prompted action by the US Congress, which passed the 2002 “Help America Vote Act,” setting aside nearly $4 billion to pay for thousands of new machines across the United States.
About 20 percent of US voters now have touch-screen or other electronic machines, and estimates are that as many as 50 million may be using the new technology in next month’s election.
But opponents said paperless voting is fraught with the potential for fraud and mistakes. Critics worry that unscrupulous officials could steal an election, or that hackers could create election mayhem for fun.
Forbes magazine called paperless voting a “worst technology” of 2003, and legislation has been introduced in Congress against it.
Touch screen voting “produces results that are not publicly verifiable,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation.
In some elections using paperless e-voting “there have been cases when the number of votes recorded in a jurisdiction do not equal the number of voters who show up to vote,” she said.
In Alexander’s own state of California, she said, “thousands of voters were disenfranchised” during the March 2003 gubernatorial primary because of faulty electronic voting equipment.
And because the new technology does not leave a paper trail, disputed results cannot be audited or recounted, critics said.
The potential for problems is causing uneasiness. In July, some 350,000 people sent petitions to election officials in 19 states, calling for a voter-verified “paper trail” if electronic machines are used.
Some election watchers are urging the use of a modified version of the technology, which use optical scanning machines to register ballots.
The technology, not yet widely in use, works in a similar way to photocopiers. The machines register a voter’s pencil mark on the ballot by the amount of light it absorbs, and provides a record of ballots cast, prompting Alexander to call the technology “the best of both worlds.”
“There needs to be a paper record that the voter gets to inspect before leaving the poll,” she said. “In that way the voter can ensure that their vote has been properly recorded and just as importantly, election officials have an audit tool that they can use after the election to make sure that the final vote count is accurate.”
Leery voters, sobered by the 2000 crisis, have opted to cast ballots well before election day, making an end run around last-minute technical problems.
More than one in five US voters—22 percent—will cast ballots before election day, according to a recent poll by the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey.
Meanwhile, some states have rejected hi-tech voting all together. Most localities in the critical swing state of Ohio will bypass electronic voting, said Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, and have retained the old hand-lever system.
That choice has led some pundits to predict that Ohio will be the Florida of 2004, but Blackwell rejects that.
“We are focused in Ohio on making sure that every ballot that is legally cast is converted to a counted vote,” he told US television early this week.
He said better voter education, rather than hi-tech innovation, is the key to averting problems at the ballot box.
“We have a massive voter education program that has been highly successful in our state, and we think that that will be the turning point in this election,” Blackwell said.
“We didn’t have the confusion that visited Florida in 2000, because we have a strong system. Our 45,000 poll workers and election officials will be ready for this election,” said Blackwell.
By Stephanie Griffith