Vote tally in '00: off by millions

Most far-reaching study so far cites faulty machines, problems with voter registration.

More than eight months after the 2000 presidential election, new evidence is confirming what many Americans already suspected: The system failed to take into account vast numbers of legitimate votes, effectively disenfranchising millions of people.

Problems with voting machines and voter registration led to the loss of between 4 million and 6 million votes overall in the 2000 election. Although Florida's problems drew the most attention, Illinois, South Carolina, and Georgia all had even higher rates of spoiled or uncounted ballots, according to a new report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, the most comprehensive study yet of America's electoral system in the wake of the Florida recount.

These findings, combined with several other recently concluded investigations, are providing a detailed picture of what went wrong last November - and giving greater momentum to the push for electoral reform at both the federal and state levels.

Already, a number of counties and states are moving to improve voting technology in time for the 2002 or 2004 elections, with states like Florida and Indiana banning punch cards altogether. And so far, the issue seems to have broad bipartisan support in Congress.

Nevertheless, reform on a national scale won't necessarily be easy. One potential roadblock is the debate over which tier of government, federal or state, should be responsible for mandating new standards - and who should pay for the bulk of equipment upgrades. Another unresolved question is whether counties should move to replace faulty equipment with better, but still imperfect, equipment that currently exists, or wait until superior technology emerges.

"Given that it's about the basic right of voters to have their votes count ... it's something that neither party wants to be on the wrong side of," says Rob Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy in Takoma Park, Md. But the question of "who should be mandating what - that's one of the political complications that has to be dealt with. On the technical side, it's become clear that there's no slam-dunk right piece of equipment right now to buy."

Congress is already considering a number of bills that would set standards for voting equipment and provide funds for upgrades. The issue may also gain momentum in the wake of the House's failure to pass a campaign-finance reform bill, as a less-partisan reform measure, experts say.

But even greater action is happening at the state level, says Stephen Ansolabehere, a political scientist at MIT and an author of the new report.

For example, many states are taking a closer look at their voting technology. Currently, paper ballots that are optically scanned by a machine or counted by hand are the most reliable, according to the MIT/Caltech report. Punch cards, which gained notoriety during the Florida recount, lose at least 50 percent more votes than optically scanned paper ballots.

Surprisingly, electronic voting machines have a failure rate almost as high as punch cards - though this is likely to change as more companies devote resources to developing a better model. For now, the report recommends replacing punch cards and lever machines - which have a tendency to jam - with optically scanned paper ballots. This would enable the US to cut in half - by 2004 -the number of votes lost due to equipment failure.

The sticking point will be cost. A city with 250,000 voters would pay about $5 million to buy new equipment, a sum that exceeds the total election administration budget of most cities that size. One possible solution for some states, experts say, is to lease equipment, an option Rhode Island and Maryland are already employing.

The cost issue underscores the importance of federal funding, says Mr. Richie, since without it, "you'd have a real inequality as to which states do things and don't do things."

The MIT/Caltech report comes on the heels of a number of other investigations of Election 2000, some of which imply that low-income minorities - who tend to vote Democratic - are more likely to be disenfranchised. While such claims could mean the Democratic Party may benefit more than the GOP from election reform, experts say partisan concerns are so far being outweighed by a general consensus on both sides that the system needs fixing.

"There may be some political consequences from some of the decisions, but they seem to be overridden by both parties feeling that it's just a problem that they want to see corrected," says Richie.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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