Voting technology is at a major crossroads as election officials - in Florida and elsewhere - find themselves riding the crest of a wave of public concern about the machines relied on for casting and counting votes.
Officials are considering shifting away from discredited punch-card ballots, blamed for much of the confusion surrounding last fall's presidential election in Florida. At present, punch-card ballots are used by more than one-third of US voters.
Experts say it is still too early to tell which ballot technology will emerge as the primary replacement. But they say it is only a matter of time.
"We are going to go in one of two directions - optical scanners or electronic voting," says Stephen Ansolabehere, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "The race is on to see if you can make one of these two modes of voting more attractive."
There are already 32 bills in Congress and 1,400 other bills introduced by state legislators dealing with election technology and election reforms. Some federal lawmakers are considering spending $2 billion to $3 billion to help states update their voting methods. The moves could amount to the most significant investment in voting technology in the nation's history.
"I see a lot of momentum out there right now. The secretaries of state are confident that much can be changed by 2002 and 2004," says Kay Albowicz of the National Association of Secretaries of State, the chief elections officials in each state.
But ironically, the debate in Congress over funding for new voting machines could slow the push for change, analysts say, because some jurisdictions may wait to see if they can obtain federal funds rather than moving quickly and paying the entire bill themselves.
In addition, many question marks still surround emerging technologies, like Internet voting and ATM-style touch-screen ballots, known as electronic voting.
A recent National Science Foundation study concluded that remote voting via the Internet from home or work would not be a viable option for many years to come. "Internet voting is not a cure-all for problems with currently used voting technology," the report says. "Although remote Internet voting could maximize convenience - including better access for people with disabilities - the security problems cannot be resolved using even the most sophisticated technology today."
Some observers are more optimistic about the prospects of ATM-like voting systems. "Our understanding is that within six months, there will be ATM-style voting capability," says Rob Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy in Takoma Park, Md. But despite such optimism, experts stress there are significant hurdles.
A study released in February assessing the impact of technology on voting behavior found that touch-screen ballots registered the same high percentage of undervotes and overvotes as punch cards. It found a rate of disqualified or uncounted votes about 50 percent higher among touch-screen users than among voters using paper ballots, lever voting machines, or optical scanning machines.
The study was conducted by researchers at MIT and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and was authored by Mr. Ansolabehere.
He says he finds the touch-screen results "distressing." "I was surprised because the touch screen is pretty nifty technology," he says.
But the Caltech/MIT research suggests that touch-screen technology (at least as it now exists) is as confusing and difficult to use as the punch-card system. Ansolabehere says that it may take time for Americans to get used to the idea of using touch screens for voting. "There is a fraction of the population that just doesn't like this technology," he says. "What we might need is focused voter training."
In the meantime, some state officials are pressing ahead with reform efforts.
A task force in Florida has recommended the statewide use of an optical-scan system with counting machines in each precinct (as opposed to in a central location). The task force estimates such a system could cost $20 million to lease for the 2002 election cycle or more than $40 million to purchase.
Some Florida lawmakers have expressed concern about such a price tag, but other analysts say Florida's Gov. Jeb Bush must move forward quickly. If Florida Republicans are viewed as stalling, they may be accused of attempting to prolong what some in the minority community view as an attempt to disenfranchise a segment of the state electorate.
The same analysis could apply to President George W. Bush on a national scale.
"On the political side," says Mr. Richie, "members of the Bush administration won't be able to put Florida behind them until they help states address the problems that came out in the Florida election."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor