A year later, the ballot is still out on voting reform

States like Florida, Texas are testing new voting systems; others will bring out same old machines.

HOUSTON

It's been almost a year since hanging, pregnant, and dimpled chads dominated headlines.

Many voters, heading to the polls this November, will be relieved to know that the days of poking out punch cards are gone forever. But others will be surprised to learn that they still must vote on the infamous equipment.

Since the Florida debacle last year, municipalities across the United States have spent countless hours devising ways to improve their electoral process. The frenzy of activity includes banning punch cards, enacting new vote-counting standards, and finding ways to attract additional poll workers.

It is proving to be one of the most massive electoral reforms in US history.

But many local officials, still struggling with the cost of new technology and revising outdated election laws, are finding it a much slower and more arduous process than initially thXought.

"Clearly, no one wants to be another Florida, and states have taken some small and sometimes unnoticed steps to make sure that won't happen," says Doug Chapin, director of the Election Reform Information Project in Washington. "But there haven't been any sweeping changes yet. The vast majority of voters who go to the polls 10 days from now will find that not much has changed."

That does not signify a lack of commitment or will to make such changes, says Mr. Chapin, but rather a lack of consensus on how to do it and the fact that there are no quick fixes to such a complex project.

However, a number of municipalities have already made significant changes. Cities and counties in California, Florida, and Georgia will be testing computerized voting systems in November's elections for the first time.

But Harris County, which includes Houston, is one of the first - and certainly the largest - to purchase a new electronic system for its Nov. 6 election.

The punch cards will be replaced with the computerized eSlate system, hand-held devises that look like oversized Palm Pilots. They are being tested in early voting, which began this week.

"Our system was getting old and difficult to service," says County Clerk Beverly Kaufman. "We were holding it together with bubble gum and paperclips."

But the county was not prompted to upgrade its system because of last November. Ms. Kaufman had a taskforce looking into new equipment since 1998, and the technology had finally improved to her satisfaction.

The real success depends on the voters' confidence in the system, experts say. And from a random sample in downtown Houston, the jury is still out. "I love it," said lawyer Barbara Seymour, emerging from the voting hall. "It is easy to use and you have the option of going back and changing your vote. And the graphics on the screen were big enough so I didn't have to put on my little old lady glasses."

Another early voter said he found the machines simple enough to use, but sees the potential for even greater problems with a computerized system. And a flabbergasted H.R. Barnes called the new system "a headache. They should have found something easier than that. We're not in Florida. Nobody's gonna mess with the votes here."

Shortly after last year's election, Florida - along with many other states - outlawed the use of punch cards. In September, a rural county became the first in that state to use a computerized voting system.

In the town council race in Callahan, three candidates were elected using a touch-screen system. It was being used on a trial basis, but Nassau County Supervisor of Elections Vicki Cannon says she believes the county will end up buying it.

"I could tell there was some anxiety when residents walked into the polling place. But they came away, for the most part, with smiles on their faces," says Ms. Cannon.

But not all municipalities are turning to electronic equipment. The choice is usually dictated by tradition, says Stephen Ansolabhere, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He participated in a recent study that found that between 4 million and 6 million votes were lost in the 2000 election.

"Looking at a map of the United States, those states that have had machine-based systems such as the lever machine prefer electronic systems. And those states that were paper-based are turning to optical-scan systems," in which voters use pens to mark ballots that are read by a machine.

That's true because state election laws generally conform to either one system or the other. Philadelphia, for instance, purchased 3,500 electronic voting machines to replace its 40-year-old lever machines. City officials aim to have the machines installed in time for the 2002 elections.

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