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The San Mateo County Times

Will smooth election delay reform?

Voting experts fear touch-screen complacency in the wake of an uneventful day at the polls

Friday, November 05, 2004
By Ian Hoffman

Not surprisingly, an undercurrent of lefty suspicion is running on the Internet: Was the president re-elected by "moral values" voters or by faith-based electronic voting machines?

Armchair analysts are sifting the exit polls and finding -- astonishingly enough -- a multipoint gap between how paperless touch-screen voters in Ohio and Florida said they voted and the actual outcome.

The facts underlying the analyses are wobbly at best. Ohio doesn't have many touch-screen machines (none made by Diebold, in any event), and President Bush didn't win either state in touch-screen counties.

The two campaigns should take a look anyway, says University of Iowa computer scientist Douglas Jones, a former state voting-machine examiner and touch-screen skeptic.

"If any election fraud on that magnitude ever came to light in the United States, it could lead to impeachments and Teapot Dome-scale scandals. To overlook them would be irresponsible," Jones said. "But my bet is there is nothing there."

What worries voting reformers more is that Congress, the White House and states will see the lack of a 2004 election meltdown as vindication of America's voting system and neglect the tools of democracy another four years.

"There's a huge danger," said Ted Selker, an MIT computer scientist who co-directs the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project.

"If you're an election official, it's going to be very hard to go to Congress and say we need more money," said Doug Chapin, executive director of Electionline.org, a nonpartisan clearinghouse for voting reform information. "What they could say is we need to finish the job we started."

After all, Congress and the White House dropped the ball on voting reform after the disastrous 2000 election left half the nation questioning the legitimacy of the president and the Supreme Court.

It was a crisis for democracy, not to mention the Supreme Court, and Washington vowed it would never happen again. Congress' answer was a $3.9 billion check for new voting technologies and the Help America Vote Act.

But lawmakers and the White House delayed the money almost until the brink of the 2004 election. The U.S. Elections Assistance Commission received less than half of the funds it sought for voting reforms, and the money arrived too late.

As a result, states spent hundreds of millions of dollars on new voting machines but comparatively little on problems that plagued voters in 2000 and 2004.


Machines broke down by the hundreds Tuesday, coast to coast. But scientists suspect the greater impact on voters came from confused registration lists, poorly designed ballots -- cause of more than 1 million discarded votes in 2000 -- and hours-long lines that sent many voters home without casting a ballot.

"We spent money on things that turned out not to be the central issue," said Jones at the University of Iowa. "So it was still the case in this election that where you voted had too much of an impact on how likely your vote is to be counted."

Despite that neglect, Tuesday's election could turn out to be one of the more accurate and smoothly run in recent history, mostly as a function of scrutiny by the two parties, their lawyers and an array of poll watchers.

"Everyone knew there would be incredible oversight for this election and, as a result, the rate of honest error was at a minimum," Jones said.

Now that election-year pressure is off, will a sharply divided nation forget about shoring up voting systems poorly suited for sharp divisions?

Voting reformists are crossing their fingers and hoping not.

"Is the testing of voting machines satisfactory?" asked Selker. "No. Are the design standards appropriate? No. Are they all improving? Yes. But do we have good mechanisms for improving them? No."

Beyond those issues, the Elections Assistance Commission needs to find the best way to count provisional ballots, develop reliable registration databases and verify electronic votes.

Those and a host of other issues were neglected as the nation lurched toward Tuesday, reformists say, partly because elections officials worry that scrutiny of voting systems shakes voter confidence.


The University of Iowa's Jones said prudent elections officials will start upgrading their voting systems in the next six months and getting bugs worked out in off-year elections in preparation for 2008.

"Maybe now it will now be more politically acceptable to look at these questions," he said.

Contact Ian Hoffman at ihoffman@angnewspapers.com .