Are States Prepared for Problems When Voters Go to the Polls in 2008?

Jan 30, 2008

When voters went to the polls in Florida on Jan. 29 minor problems, many due to human error, were reported across the land of the infamous "hanging chads." This presidential election year, however, all the states are under intense scrutiny to prove they have fixed the voting machine malfunctions and other glitches of previous elections. Stateline.org asked two experts to answer the question of whether or not states are ready for the challenge.

YES

Todd Rokita, Indiana secretary of state

States will be ready when voters cast their ballots for our next president. This will be no small feat given the uncertain landscape they are facing…. For starters, Congress is reconsidering a 2002 law that encouraged states to update their outdated equipment by switching to electronic voting …. The latest proposal would require all states to add cash-register-style paper receipts to these machines in 2008, so that voters can verify their selections before casting a ballot.

As the debate continues on Capitol Hill, New Jersey will join the list of more than half of all states that already require some type of voter-verifiable paper trail. Florida is doing away with its paperless electronic voting machines altogether for 2008, while secretaries of state in California, Colorado and Ohio have carried out security reviews of their electronic voting machines and taken steps to decertify or overhaul their equipment.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider the constitutionality of voter identification laws during its current term. The high court's verdict will affect states such as Indiana, Georgia, Michigan and Missouri, which have adopted laws that require voters to show government-issued photo IDs at the polls. It will also affect states where photo ID legislation is pending or under consideration.

Other major voting changes are already under way in some states. For example, Iowa will begin offering same-day voter registration this year... All of these changes require election officials to update their voter education efforts and their training programs, including those for poll workers. New laws and services must be addressed along with routine election preparations, such as ballot design and printing, equipment testing, poll-worker recruitment and staffing assignments and the mailing of absentee ballots. [But In 2004 and 2006] when sweeping changes to equipment, procedures and preparations went into effect as part of federal law, the majority of states proved their ability to deliver fair and honest elections with accurate results. This year will be no exception to their record of achievement.

NO

Dr. Robert A. Pastor, director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University, Washington, DC.

While there has been some progress in the five years since passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, most states have not fully implemented, let alone embraced, the reforms needed to restore full confidence in the electoral system. So a number of problems are still likely to occur in this year's primary and general elections.

Voter registration lists remain the biggest problem. Despite a Jan. 1, 2006, deadline, a few states have not yet complied with HAVA's requirement that they submit integrated, interactive lists. Moreover, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission has not undertaken a systematic evaluation of the quality of the lists….

HAVA funding has permitted states to replace outdated punchcard and lever voting machines. During the November 2006 general elections, just 12.7 percent of registered voters nationwide used the outdated equipment, compared with 45 percent in 2000. But new problems have been introduced with the computerized systems: technical breakdowns and the need for a paper trail that permits recounts. However, there has been no federal action to provide voter-verified paper-audit trails (VVPAT)… Because of this, a few states, such as Colorado and Ohio, are even considering abandoning their electronic voting systems in favor of something paper-based, perhaps before November 2008...

Voter identification remains one of the most controversial areas of election reform, and here, little progress has been made bridging the partisan divide. While all states have met HAVA's minimum identification requirements, some, notably Indiana, Missouri, Georgia and Arizona, have adopted more stringent photo ID laws that have led to court challenges, including an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in the Indiana case that could impact the 2008 election. There is currently little data available on the impact of photo ID laws, but preliminary results from a survey commissioned by the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University show that the laws do not pose a major problem for registered voters and could provide a means for additional outreach and voter education.

In summary, voters are likely to face hassles with registration lists and voting machines. Poll workers will remain under-trained and overworked. Election management remains under the thumb of partisan officials, and voter identification is likely to remain problematic. 2008 is unlikely to be an improvement over 2006.

Read the full report Are States Prepared for Problems When Voters Go to the Polls in 2008? on Stateline.org's Web site.

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