Stateline Story

State Lawmakers Balk At Election Reform's Price Tag

Despite public cries for election reform, key lawmakers in Florida and California have soured on the idea of making wholesale changes to antiquated voting systems for lack of funds, careful study, or both.

Fiscal constraints stemming from smaller than expected revenues in the two crucial election battleground states have forced legislators from both parties to have second thoughts about using state money to fix election problems revealed during the 2000 count and recount. In 18 other states, lawmakers will soon grapple with the same problem, weighing how badly reform might be needed against how much money they can spare for such efforts.

In Florida, Republican legislative leaders, who last year found themselves at the center of a national controversy over presidential election results, said they might not be ready to spend the millions necessary to do away with punch card voting systems - the same infamous black tablets that helped make "hanging chad," "pregnant chad" and "voter intent" household phrases.

They also question whether money alone will solve the state's election problems.

State Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, who chairs the Senate Ethics and Election Committee, told reporters he does not believe the state had the right or obligation to pay for any upgrading of election technology. That burden, he said, falls on the individual counties that oversee elections.

Wary lawmakers argue that while the Florida election might have revealed flaws in ballot design, measures used to determine votes and even maintenance procedures for voting tablets, it did not prove punch card systems yielded flawed election results.

A bipartisan task force appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to study the 2000 election in the state found evidence to the contrary. In its final analysis, released earlier this week, the panel recommended that the state do away with punch card ballots in favor of an optical scanning system that rejects ballots with errors. The estimated cost for the overhaul ranges from $25 million to $45 million.

Lawmakers in other states say they want to move deliberately, allowing time to study the issue before jumping to conclusions that could drain state coffers.

In California, where 70 percent of voters use the same punch card system, a leading Democratic lawmaker said the State Assembly will study - but probably not scrap - the state's dominant voting system.

Lawmakers and election leaders cited the high price tags necessary for change. Registrars in California told The Orange County Register last week they would be unable to fund an upgrade of the cost-efficient punch-card systems using local money alone. Michael Petrucello, assistant registrar recorder in Los Angeles County, said the cost of switching from punch cards to touch-screen systems could exceed $101 million in his county alone.

Assemblyman John Longville, D-San Bernadino, chairman of the California State Assembly Elections, Reapportionment and Constitutional Amendments Committee, said more pressing issues and fiscal realities might delay rapid election modernization plans in the elector-rich state.

"Everyone is paying attention to the power (issue) right now," Longville said. "But the interest is still there. It will be awhile before anything happens. But I don't think it would be possible in light of what happened in Florida that there won't be some improvement here. But I don't think we realistically have the budget right now to move the state to touch-screens."Assemblyman Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, vice chairman of the elections committee disagreed. He said updating voting should be a statewide priority, despite the staggering costs of change.

"I think elections are so important that improvement in the voting system is something on which we ought to move quickly," he said. "When the results aren't close - like we had in California this year - the result is accepted. I'd still like to have a careful assessment of the accuracy of [our] system. And if those systems come up short in accuracy, we ought to move toward a replacement."

In all, lawmakers in 20 states have proposed bills on the issue of voting machines. More legislation is likely before a number of other state legislatures complete their annual sessions. Legislation under consideration ranges from funding studies to mandating universal adoption of electronic voting systems.

But many face the same financial hurdles. In Arizona, a comparatively modest $3.4 million plan to upgrade 10 counties with optical scan machines has faced objections from some state lawmakers who want counties and not state taxpayers to foot the bill.

Help from the federal government could soon be on the way. Two companion bills under consideration in the House and Senate would give states $500 million in matching grants next year to update their voting systems and $100 million a year thereafter. Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), a sponsor of the Senate version, said "when Americans use better technology to get cash on every street corner than they use to elect the leader of their nation, it's time to take action."

Another bill, sponsored by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) would offer $2.5 billion over the next five years for states to modernize their voting systems.

Hearings on all of the bills are scheduled to begin next month.

At the state level, there is still skepticism that new voting systems will cure the ailments of confused voters, under-voting, outdated rolls, or the various other election warts revealed last November.

At the same time, however, lawmakers in Florida and California who refuse to update voting procedures and equipment could face a backlash from voters, many of whom are losing confidence in the accuracy and fairness of elections, said Thomas Mann, director of Governmental Studies at The Brookings Institution .

Mann said progress will have to be made in changing the way both states vote, despite the hesitancy of some lawmakers. If counties had to foot the bill themselves, change would be difficult. But with the likely infusion of state and federal dollars to purchase or lease new voting equipment, many voters will see the black tablets and punch cards vanish in both Florida and California.

"There is a tradition of a highly decentralized election," Mann said. "But there's also strong political momentum after this election to begin to get the states to assume more responsibility to achieve more uniformity within counties. None of this is going to be a slam-dunk. Any time you deal with election administration, you know how decentralized it is, how complex it is, how difficult it is to implement changes. But is it going to go away? Hell no."