Voting errors linger five weeks after election

The presidential outcome wasn't contested, but one county's woes symbolize glitches still unfixed.

Five weeks after the election, North Carolina still doesn't know who its next agriculture commissioner will be. The reason: 4,500 votes in coastal Carteret County were lost in a computer. They simply vanished.

While no one suspects foul play - it seems to be the result of an innocent mistake - the vote count between candidates Steve Troxler and Britt Cobb remains close enough that the state will have to hold another election in the county in January. In other words, North Carolina is still a month or two away from knowing who will oversee its poultry farms and pecan groves.

The mishap here is one of many that occurred across the country on election day, offering a window into the flaws that still exist in American democracy.

While most experts think the election went well overall - especially given the large turnout - lessons are nonetheless being learned about how to improve individual systems. And questions linger in some states about the integrity of a system that underwent massive changes after Florida's debacle in 2000.

"The case in Carteret County exposes the flaws in democracy and elections generally," says Christian Grose, a political scientist at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. "Counting all the votes is not that easy all the time."

Nationally, few of the mishaps seemed to sway races' outcomes: For the most part, say experts, it wasn't so much a roof-tearing hurricane - just a hard blow that shuffled the deck furniture. They blame a confluence of factors, from ballot shortages to electronic glitches, and point to a populace increasingly skeptical of the voting system. With such a politicized process, too, the fact that partisan officials often run the show has only stoked the tension of the aftermath.

"You had record turnout, record numbers of new registrants, voter concern about equipment, whether it was new or old, you had new laws that were in effect, and, finally, you had the provisional ballots, which were the source of enormous confusion," says Sherry Swirsky, a Philadelphia lawyer and author of the Democrats' National Election Law Manual.

From Washington, where residents are looking at a second recount in the governor's race, to North Carolina's bungled vote for a "sod father," several races remain unresolved - and even some now-settled contests have faced plenty of hurdles along the way:

• In Ohio, the state election commission has voted to allow a recount - and the Green and Libertarian parties have promised to fund it.

• In Texas, poll workers had to ship an electronic ballot box to Canada to "unfreeze" a file of votes.

• In Montana, control of the house still hangs in the balance, with a mere 2,000-vote margin now being debated and recounted.

• In Iowa, a poll supervisor had to drive hundreds of miles to find a working counting machine. Worse, the state didn't accept a federal absentee ballot for military personnel, which meant that some Iowans fighting in Iraq were not able to vote.

• And in Florida's Broward County, among other places, some voters said that when they voted for Sen. John Kerry, President Bush appeared on the screen instead. Yet charges that Mr. Bush simply couldn't have won in some areas were dispelled by media research showing that many of those who were expected to vote Democratic actually chose Bush.

All the electoral hiccups and rumored shenanigans have only intensified public scrutiny of the electoral system (which for centuries functioned by hook and crook and common sense, and involved little more than setting up voting booths and unlocking the ballot box). Now, there's a growing expectation that the polls should be run with all the speed and accuracy of a NASCAR pit stop - and the fact that 40 states still haven't complied fully with the 2002 Help America Vote Act.

For all the system's shortcomings, experts note that this year's presidential result is not contested - a step up from 2000, with its Florida court battles. .

"Any voter who lost a vote is one vote too many, but no matter what you hear from various groups or on the blog, it really did, overall, go smoothly," says Doug Chapin, director of the nonpartisan "The fact that there were 120 million voters and we got a clear outcome in a race that was competitive the minute the polls opened on the East Coast, I think says the election system is in relatively good shape and it'll only get better."

But the Carteret County snafu and ensuing confusion loom large, especially for the voters of this coastal district.

"It reminds me of the Far Side cartoon where the little boy raises his hand in class and says: 'My brain is full, may I be excused?' " says Mr. Chapin. "There's 4,500 people and their votes are just gone."

The state agriculture commissioner once ruled the roost in Raleigh, but today, especially for the fishermen and longshoremen of Morehead City, it's an office that holds little sway. Still, the mistake here, which happened when an exhausted poll worker failed to notice a "memory full" caption on a machine, illustrated how hard it can be to juggle technology and common sense.

Despite the room for error, calls to staff the polls with an army of savvy computer scientists may be premature. Indeed, many say the poll workers are the true heroes of the system - quiet bureaucratic bees who take their jobs seriously, and help give American elections their air of democracy and authenticity. The human element, though imperfect, potentially willful, and sometimes idealistic to a fault, at least provides a moment of face-to-face contact and the tactile experience of a ballot exchanged.

"We have these elaborate computers, and I don't think we even know the extent to which they can be manipulated and by whom, and that tells you the ultimate unreliability of that device to determine the future of a country," says Ms. Swirsky.

Still, most Americans seem to agree that the voting booth is no place for Luddites, and that the occasional conflict between man and machine is inevitable, and no reason to toss out computerized voting. That, perhaps, has prevented outrage in Carteret County, where few seem to be planning a return to the polls in January.

"The system's not perfect, but, in the end, it did the job," says Will Johnson, a wind-whipped Morehead City fisherman. "There's no uproar because people didn't feel it was something that could turn the intent of the election."

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