Voting technology: Will the chads still hang?

New law gives states billions to upgrade their systems, but critics say fancy tools are only half the battle.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Two years after the Florida election fiasco of 2000, nationwide reform of America's voting mechanics has only just begun.

Yesterday, President Bush signed legislation that authorizes $3.86 billion to replace antiquated and mistake-prone voting systems and implement new federal standards. The plan calls for changes to be in place by 2006.

But the danger, say observers of reform, is that it focuses too heavily on technology and not enough on the human element of voting – finding and training dedicated poll workers and educating voters.

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"Any legislation that directly or indirectly equates election reform with new voting machines risks missing the mark," reports the Washington-based Election Reform Information Project.

A handful of states that have already implemented changes discovered this the hard way during fall primaries. In Florida's two largest counties, insufficiently trained poll workers – and some who didn't show up at all – spoiled the debut of state-of-the-art touch-screen voting machines and produced massive, embarrassing delays.

Touch-screen machines also baffled some poll workers in Montgomery County, Md., in the Sept. 10 primary, and communications glitches delayed reporting of final results until 2 a.m. Since then, the county has retrained poll workers and installed computer modems to speed reporting of returns.

County Board of Elections Director Margaret Jurgensen says she's "on track" to line up the 4,000 poll workers she needs for Tuesday and has been holding training sessions almost daily. She's also still recruiting bilingual poll workers to help with the county's burgeoning Hispanic population.

THERE'S no doubt that elections can look messy in America – both before reform and after. In Michigan, which hasn't started reforms yet, a confusing ballot design led to the invalidation of about 10 percent of primary ballots this year. And with many tight races that could determine control of the House, Senate, and statehouses, cries of election fraud and unfair practices are already ringing out nationwide.

Bogus absentee ballots have turned up in South Dakota. Arkansas Democrats are charging Republicans with "bullying tactics" to keep African-Americans away from the polls, though GOP officials deny the charge. Both parties are recruiting lawyers to monitor polling places in anticipation of disputes. By election night, the United States could look like 50 Floridas.

But both experts and those in the trenches of conducting elections come back to a key theme: that citizens need to be energized to help run elections.

"As our poll-worker community gets older, we need to make sure we're reaching out to younger populations, not just to engage in civic participation but also to work at the polls," says Rashad Robinson, field director for the Center for Voting and Democracy in Takoma Park, Md. Indeed, Kentucky, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia have new rules allowing older teenagers to work in polling places.

Yet the bulk of the reform to come will center on technology – and most states have been waiting for federal money to foot most of the bill. The new Help America Vote Act calls for the federal government to pay 95 percent of the cost, with 5 percent coming from the states. (So far, though, there is no money; Congress has not yet passed an appropriation.)

In addition to providing block grants to the states for upgrading voting equipment and improving election administration and training of poll workers, the law calls on states to:

• Allow for "provisional voting," beginning with the 2004 presidential election. This allows people whose names are not on registration lists to vote anyway; the vote counts if the registration can be verified later.

• By 2004, require people registering to vote to provide a driver's license number or the last four digits of a Social Security number. If a person has neither, a number will be assigned. The goal is to prevent fraud.

• Establish state-wide, computerized voter registration databases by 2006. This will make it easier to confirm if someone is on the voter rolls.

• Allow "second chance voting" by 2006. Voters will be allowed to check for errors and redo their ballots.

• Provide at least one handicapped- accessible voting machine per precinct by 2006.

• Define a "legal" vote – clarifying, for instance, the fate of the hanging chad – for each type of voting machine by 2006.

One of the largest sticking points on the legislation was the issue of voter identification. To critics, the requirement flew in the face of the American tradition of allowing people to vote without showing ID, in the name of encouraging participation. There is concern centered in the Hispanic community that identification requirements will depress Latino turnout, especially among naturalized citizens, who may lack credentials.

"Some new citizens may not have proof of citizenship," says Angelo Ancheta, legal director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. "After 9/11 we're seeing immigration used to address security concerns, and some immigrants are having trouble getting a driver's license."

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