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NBC News
updated 3/30/2006 4:16:08 PM ET 2006-03-30T21:16:08

Almost six years after the numerous recounts, hanging chads, and legal challenges that marred the 2000 presidential race, voters and lawmakers will soon see if reforms enacted as a result of the infamous election have been effective. While much progress has been made, some experts worry that it could get worse before it gets better.

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The Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed by the federal government in 2002 in reaction to the Florida 2000 recount, has changed the way voting and vote-counting takes place in America.

On Wednesday, more than two dozen experts in election management and reform gathered at American University here for a conference -- hosted by the Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform -- to examine whether or not HAVA is working.  The answer to the question is... good question.

Since Jan. 1 marked the deadline for states to meet all of HAVA's requirements, the first real test of whether it has made any difference in the efficiency and accuracy of elections will be seen in this year's contests. But many are worried -- and with cause.

Almost three dozen states are still struggling to meet HAVA's requirements, which include providing accessible voting machines and creating statewide voter registration databases.  In the meantime, a debate over voter ID requirements is raging in several states, while others are struggling to determine which voting equipment is the most accurate.

As a result, two important issues to watch out for this year will be how election workers and voters are able to understand and use new and unfamiliar voting machines, and whether states are able to round up enough poll workers.

While election officials across the country are working to help states meet these requirements, some critics argue election reform has a long way to go. States need more money to overhaul their voting equipment and to recruit the necessary number of poll workers to run an election. 

In the meantime, local officials are frustrated that they've been forced to change too much too fast.  "You can't eat big hunks of change all at once," Guy Harriman, president of the Howard County Board of Elections in Maryland, said. "It's hard."

"The states are acting in a hundred different directions and the result may be, in 2006 and 2008, a compounding of [a] meltdown," said Robert Pastor, director of the American University Center for Democracy and Election Management.

Paul DeGregorio, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which also was established in response to the Florida 2000 debacle, says HAVA is working.  He points to the success of provisional ballots in the 2004 election, which prevented the potential disenfranchisement of nearly 1 million voters.  He also notes that HAVA has made it possible for the disabled to vote in private for the first time ever, and predicts that the number of over-votes will decline.  The commission is proud of the progress they've made so far, he said.

But Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, isn't so optimistic. 

Ornstein says the changing political climate means there will be many more close elections in the future and that because election reform isn't a high congressional priority, money needed to enact further reforms will continuously be in short supply.  Asked to predict the future of election reform, Ornstein said in jest, "We've looked at the future and it sucks."

Ornstein says Congress is unlikely to take up the issue of election reform again any time soon.  "It was basically the equivalent for them... [to] the kind of pain they imagined would be in childbirth without anesthetics and it's still not at a point where they've forgotten what that pain was all about and they don't want to go through it again at any level or in any fashion," he said.

The unprecedented circumstances under which New Orleans is holding its mayoral election on April 22 has revived concerns about election reform.

DeGregorio says his group is serving as a facilitator between local officials in New Orleans and FEMA and Department of Homeland Security officials in Washington.  Asked if Hurricane Katrina has prompted them to consider drawing up guidelines for elections that may be held under similar circumstances in the future, DeGregorio said that the EAC is researching the issue and talking to other election administration officials about how to deal with such a situation. 

Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, says she doesn't understand why the United States can't "get it straight."  She fears that voters in New Orleans won't be able to vote in what might be the most important election in that city's history.

"I find it extremely embarrassing," Pingree said.  "People can't figure out why we can't figure it out."

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