Punch Cards Out, Paper Trails In

Glitches in new voting machines in Illinois' primary elections last week may foreshadow snafus in several states this year, as more than 30.6 million voters are expected to encounter new equipment when they go to the polls.

"History show that it's the first election with new equipment when jurisdictions are most likely to experience problems," said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services (EDS), a political consulting firm that specializes in election administration and redistricting.

By November, nearly 45 percent of all counties expect to have changed their voting equipment to meet new federal guidelines sparked by the disputes in the 2000 presidential election, according to EDS. But 20 percent of counties are still in the midst of preparing for this year's elections, the company found.

Despite some states' initial rush to buy all-digital voting machines, more than half of the nation's counties still will be voting with something that requires paper, EDS found. While at least 29 states will use some form of touch-screen voting machine in the 2006 election, laws in 26 states require either a paper receipt from a digital voting device or a paper balloting system, according to Electionline.org, a nonprofit group that tracks state voting reforms.

Another 13 states are considering bills to require a paper receipt or ballot, according to VerifiedVoting.org, a nonprofit advocacy group working to expand such laws.

Plans to switch to paperless electronic machines were thrown into tumult after thousands of ATM-like touch-screen voting machines malfunctioned during California's March 2004 primary. C omputer scientists and election officials questioned whether digital machines were vulnerable to tampering, and they complained of no paper trail to doublecheck results.

After 2000, touch-screen machines were considered by many to be the answer to the problems of paper. In recent years, however, there has been a backlash against paperless voting, and a concern that the cure has become worse than the disease said Dan Seligson, editor of Electionline.org's annual report. Electionline.org is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which also supports Stateline.org.

Illinois officials had billed the March 21 primary as a transition to "more modern elections." The state has discarded the old-style punch-card machines, which spawned the infamous "hanging chads" in Florida in 2000, in favor of electronic touch-screen voting machines or optical-scanners that read paper ballots marked with a pen.

But the new voting equipment in Illinois threw voters, election workers and politicians for a loop. Some poll workers in Chicago and surrounding Cook County ran into problems sending electronic results from the precincts, and some of the optical scanners had to be replaced during the day. Final results for Cook County were not finished by the weekend after the voting, and city and county officials were threatening to withhold payments to Sequoia Voting Systems, which provided much of the equipment and technology for the county.

Daniel W. White, executive director of the Illinois Board of Elections, said that there were isolated instances of equipment failure but that most of the problems were caused by unfamiliarity with the new machines. For instance, roughly 4,000 of the 14,000 election judges in Chicago did not attend a training session for the new equipment, White said.

Illinois was one of 16 states required to replace all of its punch-card and lever voting machines to meet requirements of the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA ), the 2002 law that set nationwide standards for voting equipment and elections processes. The law was Congress' answer to the debacle of the 2000 presidential election, when Florida elections officials and state and federal courts struggled for more than a month to determine the outcome of the razor-thin vote.

New York, which uses lever machines, is the only state of the 16 to miss that deadline, and risks losing more than $47 million in federal grants. It also is among 21 states that did not satisfy another rule requiring accessible voting machines for disabled people by Jan. 1. Thirteen states, including New York, have not finished a statewide database of registered voters.

A backlash against some new voting technology has created an irony: Instead of eliminating paper from voting systems after Florida's troubles, it will just come in a different shape. The bottom line is punch cards are out, but paper trails are in.

While some states are still in the process of buying voting equipment, EDS estimates 50.2 percent of counties will use optical-scan machines that read hand-marked paper ballots, compared to 41 percent in the 2000 election. ATM-like touch-screen machines, which allow voters to make their choices by pressing a video screen, will be used by 34 percent of counties this year, compared to 10 percent in 2000. At least seven states will use devices that print a paper receipt of electronic votes from touch-screen machines, with more than a dozen states still pressing legislation to require paper records.

Traditional paper ballots, marked by pen and counted by hand, were used in 11.7 percent of counties six years ago but will account for about 5.7 percent of counties in 2006. Use of paper punch-cards has declined from 18 percent of counties in 2000 to just under 4 percent, and lever machines previously found in 14 percent of counties are down to about 3.8 percent.

Oregon is currently the only state where nearly all ballots are sent by mail, but the state also must provide some voting machines for disabled people. In Washington state, which had the closest gubernatorial race in history in 2004, 34 of the state's 39 counties will be moving to all-mail voting next year, said Secretary of State Sam Reed.