WASHINGTON — The current and future state of election reform depends on which expert or official you ask. Six years after the most controversial presidential election in modern history and a federally mandated overhaul of the voting process, a group of experts and election officials from around the country gathered in Washington to discuss reform efforts last month. The picture most of them painted wasn't very optimistic. But the first real test of the new system, they all agree, will come as states hold their primaries this year. Elections administrators hope that the primaries will be an opportunity identify and correct problems before the Nov. 7 general election.
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Almost a dozen states that have already held primaries this year have experienced problems. In Pennsylvania's Allegheny County last week, officials found 750 uncounted absentee ballots. Apparently poll workers, using new equipment and procedures, mistakenly put the ballots in the wrong place.
In another Pennsylvania county, a local race was overturned because a worker's error while operating new machines resulted in a miscount. In Tuesday's Arkansas primary, officials in more than a dozen counties reported problems with new machines, necessitating a ballot count that stretched into the middle of the night. Election officials in some Arkansas counties told the Associated Press that the manufacturer of new electronic voting machines didn't provide programming equipment in time to adequately train poll workers.
The real test
Two years after the Bush v. Gore debacle exposed a host of cracks in the nation's election system, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The law, among other things, provided states with funds to improve overall election administration, upgrade outdated voting machines and create statewide voter registration databases. The deadline to meet the latter two -- and arguably the most important requirements -- passed this year, which is why experts and officials feel that the midterms will be the first "real test" of HAVA.
Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed, who is also president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, says that despite some setbacks during primary season, elections officials are optimistic. "Overall, the feedback has been positive, but anytime you do a conversion there are going to be wrinkles and some glitches," Reed said. However, many of the problems have been "addressed" and "corrected," he adds.
But Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, a non-profit group that represents voter registration and elections administration officials, notes that elections officials were prepared for those glitches. "We expect lots of problems, quite frankly," Lewis said.
Still, Reed and Lewis are most concerned about voting equipment going forward.
Supply and demand strains
Reed explains that there are just a handful of companies who produce voting machines and so many states that need them. "They are spread so thin," he says. "They basically had to sell everything in one or two years that they used to sell over 10 or 15 [years]," Lewis says of the machine vendors. "It has put a considerable strain on the process."
Because of this situation, Doug Chapin, director of ElectionLine.org, explains that many states are not getting quality machines or are getting equipment so late that they're forced to create contingency plans in case their machines don't arrive in time. "The big question is whether they will be able to get the bugs worked out before the general election," he says. Reed adds that such delays interfere with and delay poll worker training and voter education on new machines, which can produce more problems down the road.
Further compounding the situation is that many state legislatures have passed recent laws requiring those states to have voter-verified paper trails. Reed says these last-minute changes create additional challenges for states that have to go through the tedious process of vetting new machines and for the equipment companies who then have to supply them.
Due to the unprecedented nature of these changes, it's difficult to predict how successful or unsuccessful the midterm election balloting might be five months from now. Still, Lewis says that while 2006 might seem like the country has gone "backwards" things will get better. He adds that voters must understand that implementing changes of this magnitude takes time. "My guess is -- honestly -- by the time we get through [the] 2008 elections, we will have noticed a fairly significant improvement in terms of the voters being able to cast and count ballots accurately throughout the system."
Huma Zaidi covers politics for NBC News.