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Elections still face problems, panel says
Despite technology upgrades, there can still be voting glitches this year, a panel says.
By LUCY MORGAN
Published July 22, 2004
SALT LAKE CITY - Emerging technology could ease concerns about the lack of a paper trail in touch screen voting machines, but the solution won't be cheap and it could cause new problems at the polls, election experts gathered here said Wednesday.
Modifying touch screen systems to produce a paper trail could add as much as 75 percent to the cost of the machines, said M. Glenn Newkirk of InfoSentry Services Inc.
It also will take voters longer to cast ballots, require more room to store machinery and require more training for poll workers and voters, Newkirk said.
Little can be done before the Nov. 2 presidential election, so Florida can expect "a media monsoon" and lots of scrutiny, agreed the panel of experts during the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"I think it's going to be exciting in November and we'll be the center of the universe again," said Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, the panel's moderator.
No recount on touch screen systems has been rejected by the courts despite challenges in areas where the systems have been used for years, Newkirk said.
The nationwide push to spend millions on electronic voting systems was prompted by images of a judge squinting at the hanging chad of a punch card ballot during the 2000 Florida presidential recount, said Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, a clearinghouse for election information established as a result of the Florida debacle.
"There was a sense of never again, paper is the problem and we need to get away from paper," Chapin said.
Fifteen Florida counties representing about half the state's registered voters now use touch screen voting machines, including Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough. Less than a third of voters nationwide use the machines.
But the lack of paper stirred new controversy.
Pamela Smith, nationwide director of verifiedvoting.org, is leading the charge for voter-verified paper ballots.
"I'm not an advocate of punch cards," Smith said. "But you need to see a hard copy to confirm what is accurate when you cast a ballot."
Smith's group supports optical scan systems used in most Florida counties, but said a new system is being developed that uses a touch screen machine to mark a paper ballot that is then deposited into a sealed container.
Some states moved to touch screen machines because of a federal requirement to have systems in place by 2006 that allow blind and disabled voters to cast ballots in private. Optical scan systems, in which voters fill in ovals on paper ballots, didn't meet that standard.
Chapin compared the situation facing voters in 2004 to forest fires. "The woods aren't any drier than they were four years ago, but more people have matches," Chapin said. "There is no problem too small to cause someone to hire a lawyer."
Because touch screen machines do not produce a paper trail, manual recounts are not possible. But machine recounts are still done, Newkirk said.
The delays caused by all the uproar over paperless ballots will leave many of the nation's voters with the same equipment as four years ago, including punch card systems.
The problems will be similar to those of the past: some votes won't count because voters didn't properly use the system and some poll workers won't be properly trained, Newkirk said.
The entire debate includes an element of greed, the experts said.
In one state a vendor of new electronic equipment fueled the fire with financial support for another group seeking a particular type of equipment. Newkirk wouldn't say where the incident occurred, but said it is now being investigated by state officials.