States will be ready when voters cast their ballot for our next U.S. president. This will be no small feat given the uncertain landscape they are facing. With presidential primaries beginning in early January, major changes to our electoral system could still happen before November 2008.
For starters, Congress is reconsidering a 2002 law that encouraged states to update their outdated equipment by switching to electronic voting machines (a switch, it should be noted, that many states and counties have not yet fully paid for). 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 on the issue 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 already are under way in some states. For example, Iowa will begin offering same-day voter registration this year. North Carolina will offer citizens the chance to register and vote early during the same time frame. Washington state will allow voters to register via the Internet. And Indiana voters will be able to cast their ballots at vote centers, which conveniently allow voting at one of several district locations instead of a single local polling place.
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. Add in possible Election Day mishaps such as technical glitches, equipment breakdowns, no-show poll workers, weather problems and complaints, and it's easy to see why it's so challenging to prepare for high-turnout presidential primary and general elections.
State and local election officials will focus intently on preventing long lines and large crowds at polling sites through proper planning and sound administration practices that properly anticipate turnout figures and equipment needs. They also will help to keep voters from showing up at the wrong polling place or forgetting to bring proper identification through vigorous and comprehensive public education efforts.
Will there be isolated incidents and reports of problems in 2008? Undoubtedly. The greater the uncertainty that hangs over the process between now and November, the greater the chance for mishaps to occur. You can expect to hear some dire predictions. But given the overall success of the elections in 2004 and 2006 - a year 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.
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. And about one third of the states have bottom-up databases that rely on counties and municipalities to retain their own registration lists and submit information to the state rather than the other way around. In contrast, top-down lists typically deliver information in real time. A few states have exchanged information with other states, but there is no systematic national interoperable database that would reduce duplication across the states, as the Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform recommended.
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), and a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) that requires all voting machines to have VVPAT is stalled because of concerns that states would be hard-pressed to meet the bill's deadline. 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.
Poll workers are overworked and underpaid. They put in a 14- to 16-hour workday, face complex job requirements after little training and generally receive scant compensation. (Delaware pays as little as $15 per day and $25 for attending training; the highest pay rates are reported in New York, where they can range up to $325 per day.)
Provisional ballots are another potential problem. In 2004, the last year for which data is available, 1.9 million such ballots were cast nationally and just 1.2 million or 64.5 percent were counted. At the state level, the percentage counted ranged from 100 percent in Maine to 0 percent in Idaho.
Independent, nonpartisan election management is the international standard, yet elections in the United States are mostly administered by partisan state chief elections officers. A few states, notably Colorado and Georgia, have adopted conflict-ofinterest regulations that prohibit elections officials from engaging in partisan behavior, but partisanship remains the norm.
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.--Alison Prevost, Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform, and Vassia Gueorguieva, junior fellow at the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University, contributed to this article.