Sunday, October 22, 2006

Problems Plague Election Administrators; Election Officials Struggle to Learn How to Operate Voting Machines, Train New Poll Workers

ABC News
Problems Plague Election Administrators
Election Officials Struggle to Learn How to Operate Voting Machines, Train New Poll Workers
The Associated Press

- Wendy Noren had all the voting machines she needed. What she lacked was the stuff that made them work. So the elections supervisor of Boone County, Mo., didn't sleep Tuesday night.

Instead, she worked furiously into the next morning, outlining a last-minute election plan for a county of 150,000 people, a plan that relied on pen and paper and hand-counted votes with the country's midterm election little more than two weeks away.

"I was not going to be able to have an election with the machines," said Noren, "because I didn't have the ballots, and the supplies necessary to load the ballots. I had the machines and nothing else."

In the continued fracas over electronic voting, election administrators across the country headed down to the wire still not sure whether they have enough of the newfangled machines that caused such an uproar in some states in 2004. They also are struggling to train hundreds of new poll workers on the intricacies of using and servicing the electronic devices.

Hampered by last-minute deliveries and a confusing array of new voting rules, election officials said they can only hope they don't face a rerun of 2004 long poll lines caused by malfunctioning machines, poll workers who didn't understand the machines or didn't show up, and recounts that in some cases took weeks to complete.

Noren resolved her supply problem Wednesday morning after she withheld payment on the county's $1.3 million contract for the machines, she said. Electronic Systems & Software assigned a senior vice president to the case. Still, at this late stage in an election that could change the majority of Congress, the equipment delay has put her 10 days behind in training and two weeks behind in testing the machines.

"It has to be right. I'm not going to do something that isn't," she said.

Similar stories have been repeated across the country but their scope and severity are impossible to determine because there are no federal rules for reporting such problems and there's no repository for keeping them, voting advocates say.

But a study released last week by a coalition of voting-rights groups determined that much of the problem is caused by the failure of many states to mandate how many electronic voting machines must be available at each precinct.

In 2004 in Ohio, for example, there were two machines for 1,300 would-be voters at Kenyon College, resulting in extremely long lines and waits of up to 11 hours. At another nearby precinct, there were many machines and no lines, according to the study conducted by The Century Foundation think tank, Common Cause, and The Leadership Council on Civil Rights.

The study concluded that little had been done to correct the problems from 2004. And some states, it said, had since then made it harder to vote.

More than 90 percent of voters will cast some type of electronic ballot on Nov. 7 either on a touch-screen, or on ballots that are electronically scanned, according to Election Data Services, a nonpartisan political consulting firm. Nearly one-third of those voters will be using new equipment, the company said.

Every seat in the House of Representatives is up for grabs. In the Senate, 33 seats will be decided, as will the offices of 36 governors. Republicans hope to keep control of Congress and Democrats hope to seize it in the midterm elections, which come as President Bush's job approval rating has plummeted, the war in Iraq rages on, and congressional scandals have made headlines.

In 2002, Congress approved the Help America Vote Act, a one-time infusion of money to help states redo their antiquated election systems. Its specific intention was to avoid the hanging-chad disaster of 2000, when recounts of paper ballots in Florida dragged on for weeks and ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Some $3.9 billion was promised to states, to be accompanied by reworked election standards.

But in the end, only three-fourths of that amount was disbursed, election officials said. And many of the pay-outs occurred before newer, stricter voting rules had been created.

Meaning many states bought their machines without federal guidelines.

The big three of machine manufacturers Nebraska-based Electronic Systems & Software, California-based Sequoia Voting Systems, and Diebold Election Systems of Ohio supply most of the country's precincts.

After the 2004 breakdowns, those companies became the targets of lawsuits in at least nine states. The suits, filed by voters and voter advocacy groups, claim the machines can be easily hacked, are prone to malfunction, and often don't provide a paper receipt that can be used to verify one's vote.

The companies deny those claims. But increased demand for the new technology has delayed some deliveries and created problems still being worked out, the companies say.

According to last week's report, states including Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Washington are also vulnerable to machine shortages, having suffered similar problems two years before.

"Since 2004, little has been done to ensure that there will be sufficient numbers of machines at the ready to accommodate large numbers of voters," the report said. Voting reform activists claim precincts in minority neighborhoods had far fewer machines than those in wealthier areas.

In Ohio, after the state's fiasco in the last election, officials said counties must provide one touch-screen machine for every 175 registered voters. But that provision doesn't take effect until 2013.

Meanwhile, in states such as Florida, election officials are prepared for the worst, but hoping for the best.

Leon County, Fla., elections chief Ion Sanchez who got into a bitter, public fight with Diebold after he hosted a test of their machines in which a security expert was able to hack into their system says his county is ready. He has only 125 touch-screens, which he uses to satisfy the Help America Vote Act requirement of providing equipment that can be accessed by the disabled.

"We're all squared away," he said. But he has spoken to others who aren't a North Carolina elections supervisor who is waiting on delivery of back-ordered motherboards for her machines as well as Noren in Missouri's Boone County, which includes Columbia.

She blames the machine mess on the failure of federal officials to think through a very complex problem.

"Nobody sat down and said, 'How do we do this right?' They slapped together electronic voting without any standards. Then they had problems with that. So they said, 'Slap a printout on it and that will fix it.'

"Well, if you ask me and I'm an election official the weak point of any system is the printer. You know how frustrating it is when a printer jams. Everything has to be done exactly right (on these machines), and exactly in order. Things are not always going to go right when you have machines and people and paper."

And she is short about 100 poll workers this year. Yet, Noren was able to pull off the 2004 election without a major problem. She worked herself nearly to death, she said, and so did her staff. But it got done.

This time, she says, she's working even harder. And it's not over yet.