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Election boosts trust in US voting systems

Exit polls suggest that 88 percent of Americans felt confident in their voting device Tuesday.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / November 10, 2006



This week, American democracy let out a collective sigh of relief.

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Young voters took part in record numbers, despite growing up during one of the most troubled eras of American voting. Some 1.2 million poll workers minded the details and, for the most part, avoided election-altering gaffes. In precincts where problems did pop up, some voters got the word out through amateur videos; others waited in lines in a silent testament that the day wasn't a pointless exercise.

In the end, exit polls found 88 percent of respondents felt confident in their voting device that day. And the widespread concerns about the legitimacy of recent elections didn't discourage more than 40 percent of registered voters from showing up – apparently, the highest midterm turnout in a generation. "Decision 2006" may be remembered as a confidence-restoring election.

"We've seen more change in the past six years than we've seen in the previous 200" in the technology of voting, says Paul DeGregorio, chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, charged with assisting federal reforms. "I think we're going to see more change, and certainly the introduction of more technology in this election process because people seem to like it and it works well."

The election was far from smooth, however. Among the glitches:

•Machine problems. Some didn't start up, others displayed the wrong ballot, and others, according to unverified allegations, registered votes for candidates whom voters had not picked.

•Poll worker gaffes. In several states, voters reported being asked for unnecessary identification. In Montana, a worker forgot to reset a counter, delaying the tally.

•Allegations of voter suppression. Democrats in New Mexico have charged that voters received calls that offered directions to the wrong polling place. In Virginia, the FBI is investigating similar complaints as well as an allegation that a resident was threatened with arrest if he voted.

But the consensus among election observers is that the problems – while still too numerous for comfort and difficult to track with some electronic voting technologies – appeared to be isolated and not systemic.

"In 2006, there were more problems overall, but they were largely minor," says Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, a nonpartisan reform watchdog in Washington. "Lots of fender benders, no pileups."

The problems weren't surprising, he and others say, in a year that saw the largest rollout ever of electronic voting machines. On Tuesday, more than 4 in 5 voters used some kind of electronic ballot.

"In lots of jurisdictions, preparation kept them from having any major problems," says Mr. Chapin, who lauded Connecticut in particular for "obsessive" planning. "In the places where they did have problems, they just got lucky that they weren't in races that ended up being close."

Money also helped. This year, states spent the bulk of the $3.1 billion given out under the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Mr. DeGregorio says money went not just to equipment but to poll-worker recruitment and training as well as voter education.

The snags this year, he says, arose from inattention. "It shows that details matter in the conduct of elections [and] we can do a better job of helping to professionalize election administration in this country."

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