For weeks, headlines have blared about anticipated problems on Election Day as new technology is deployed around the country. The Nov. 7 vote "could get ugly," warned one paper. Public officials are "wary" of electronic voting machines, said another, noting calls by some leaders to revert to paper ballots.
Indeed, the unprecedented rollout of new machines, as provided by law following the Florida election fiasco of 2000, led to widely reported problems during this year's primaries – including some where close elections are anticipated, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Missouri, in a year where partisan control of Congress hangs in the balance.
Election experts have no trouble painting doomsday scenarios in which control of the House boils down to one or two close races that are thrown into recounts and legal wrangling that drag on for weeks, even into January – which could leave it up to the current Republican majority to decide whom to seat and whom not to seat.
"But that would have to be a perfect storm," says Edward Foley, an election law expert at Ohio State University.
In fact, experts report the system is improving overall, even as intense scrutiny of problems threatens to undermine voter confidence in the accuracy of elections. An analysis published earlier this year by Charles Stewart, head of the political science department at MIT, found that a reduction in the "residual vote rate" – blank votes and over-votes in which too many votes are cast – led to the counting of an additional 1 million ballots in 2004, compared with 2000.
Three of the four states with big declines – Florida, Georgia, and Illinois – had made significant upgrades in their voting machines in the intervening years, and it is likely that those upgrades were a major factor, Mr. Stewart says. Florida alone saw a decline in blank votes and over-votes from 2.9 percent to 0.4 percent.
"The positive message I'm trying to bring is that if we focus on a particular problem, we can make progress," says Stewart. The problem with voting machines "hasn't been perfectly handled, but bottom line, more people were enfranchised as a consequence of what we did over the last four years."
New machines, which featured improved interface with voters and no more hanging chads, were not the only reason for improvement, Stewart notes. States with lowered residual vote rates had also done a better job of training poll workers. And voters knew to be more careful as they voted, after the problems in 2000.
Looking ahead to Nov. 7, in which 30 percent of the nation's voting jurisdictions will be using new equipment, election experts agree that the biggest test is yet to come, and a variety of factors could snowball into major problems: Election officials are chronically short of poll workers, and many who do come are retirees uncomfortable with new technology. The high demand for electronic voting machines, with just a few vendors producing them, has led to delays in delivery and a shortage of technical support staff.
One new feature in many states is a requirement for a "voter verified paper audit trail." This year, 27 states require them, compared with one in 2004. During the primaries, some of the reported problems were attributed to jammed printers and improperly loaded paper, making some backup ballots uncountable.
As a result of this and other problems, some officials have called for a return to paper ballots, or at least the option of using them. In Colorado, the state Democratic Party has called on voters to use absentee ballots after a judge concluded that the state had failed to establish minimum security standards for electronic voting machines.
Another element that is now a constant at election time is the swarm of lawyers, ready to spring into action at the first sign of trouble. According to a study by the Washington and Lee Law Review, the number of court cases challenging elections has gone up every two years, starting in 1998, where there were 104 cases. By 2004, the number had risen to 361 cases. They focus not just on outcomes of balloting, but also on voter access issues.
Mr. Foley, the election law expert at Ohio State, says the dynamic has now shifted, for partisan and strategic reasons, to sue first, ask questions later. "You don't need a close race plus problems," he says. All you need is "a close race plus lawyers.... But just because there's smoke, it doesn't mean there's necessarily fire."
Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, a nonpartisan group tracking election reform in all 50 states, predicts that when all is said and done, most races won't be close enough for major problems to arise.
Administration of elections is never perfect, but "lots of elections aren't going to crash in 2006," says Mr. Chapin. "Let's be honest, some won't crash because they aren't close. Places where they're close, the system won't fail. The places where both come together, it will be quite a show."
Robert Pastor, executive director of the Commission on Federal Election Reform, hopes that when the dust settles from any problems on Nov. 7, focus can be redirected to what he sees as a more fundamental issue: the need to make state election officials nonpartisan.
Currently, secretaries of state, who administer elections, are elected in partisan races – and are then called upon to perform as neutral actors in the event of disputes. Some then seek higher office from that post, such as the governorship, as Ken Blackwell is doing in Ohio.
"Regardless of how good and impartial these officials may be, their integrity will always be impugned by the opposing part in a close election," says Mr. Pastor. His commission is drafting model legislation for the states to establish nonpartisan election administration.