Image: Judge examining ballot
Alan Diaz  /  AP
In a photo made famous during the 2000 Florida election debacle, Circuit Judge Robert Rosenberg examines a disputed ballot at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Thousands of poll-watchers will be taking a close look at the balloting this time around.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
updated 8/30/2004 4:10:01 PM ET 2004-08-30T20:10:01

Although the Nov. 2 presidential election is more than two months away, the controversy over your vote and how it will be counted is already in full swing.

In fact, the battle of the ballot could well stretch from Tuesday's Florida primary until weeks after the November election.

"It's going to be pretty much all-consuming from here on out," said Michael Alvarez, a political science professor at the California Institute of Technology who is co-director of the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project.

Thousands of voting watchdogs have been mobilized around the country, determined to head off the kinds of voting irregularities that came to light in the 2000 presidential election, including confusing ballot designs, disenfranchised voters and touchscreen glitches. The Caltech-MIT researchers estimate that more than 4 million votes were lost due to such problems.

Ironically, the fact that so many more people are watching this time around virtually guarantees that the ballot battle will be as contentious as it was in 2000 ago, said Doug Chapin, director of

Chapin drew a parallel between the volatile election season and the forest-fire season: "The woods really aren't any drier in 2004 than they were four years ago, but more people have matches," he said.

Among the leading watchdog efforts:

  • The Election Protection Coalition, organized by the People for the American Way Foundation with participation from more than 60 other activist groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Organizers want to mobilize 35,000 volunteers, including 5,000 lawyers.
  • "My Vote, My Right," the AFL-CIO's ballot-monitoring effort, which is targeting 32 cities in 12 states.
  • Impact 2004 and Just Democracy, two projects that are organizing hundreds of law-school students to serve as voter advocates at polling places around the country.  Chapin compared Impact 2004 to the "old Freedom Rider model" for civil rights.
  • TechWatch, a project organized by the Verified Voting Foundation that has enlisted more than 1,300 computer experts to monitor voting-machine testing — and make sure glitches get caught before ballots get lost.
  • VoteWatch, which is recruiting "mystery voters" and poll-watchers to report problems, through official channels as well as through online discussion forums.
  • The political parties and the candidates' campaigns. Chapin said the Democrats and their standard-bearer, John Kerry, are prepared to "‘pre-challenge’ any problems to make sure that they don't get caught like they did last time." Meanwhile, President Bush and the GOP are playing their cards closer to the vest. "I would be very surprised if they weren't planning to be either on the attack or on the defense in the various battlegrounds around the country if a problem arises," Chapin said.

In advance of the Nov. 2 election, this week's Florida primary and Sept. 7's Nevada primary are glowing most brightly on the radar screen.

"Florida is interesting because, of course, it's Florida," Chapin said. "Given the various controversies they've had down there with the voter list and felons, the problems they've had with e-voting, the lawsuit with provisional voting, all eyes will be on Florida to see how well that process comes off in what is essentially a dress rehearsal for the even bigger election 10 weeks away."

Testing the paper trail
Nevada will be closely watched because of its part in the years-long debate over electronic voting machines.

Since the Florida punch-card debacle of 2000, the proportion of voters slated to use e-voting machines has more than doubled, thanks in large part to an infusion of federal funds for voting-booth upgrades. But the move to e-voting has been beset by horror stories of outages and touchscreen glitches that actually switched or lost ballots. That has sparked a movement toward a "voter-verifiable paper trail," in which a touchscreen machine prints out a paper receipt for voters to inspect. Nevada has added printers to its e-voting system in time for next week's primary.

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Learn how voting systems work, from paper ballots to e-voting."It will be the first real test of whether or not paper trails work on more than just a theoretical scale, and if they actually do work for individual voters in large numbers on Election Day," Chapin said.

When the November presidential election rolls around, virtually every battleground state will present a challenge in voting technology, according to Caltech's Alvarez. In Ohio, for example, voters will be contending with lots of the infamous Votomatic punch-card machines. In Oregon, the entire state votes by mail. In New Mexico, e-voting machines will be used heavily — but without the Nevada-style paper trail.

In just a couple of weeks, Alvarez and his colleagues in the Caltech-MIT project will be issuing a series of recommendations for election officials and voters. On Election Day, the researchers will be focusing on how the various voting technologies compare. "Hopefully we're not going to be called upon to participate in litigation," Alvarez said. "But if needed, we may."

Make your vote count
How can voters make sure their ballot is correctly counted in the upcoming election season? Experts say you shouldn't wait until Election Day. Proper registration is one of the big bugaboos for would-be voters, and not just for first-time voters.

"Anyone who has moved, changed residence or changed their name and thinks they have re-registered themselves should probably check to make sure they're really registered in the right precinct," Alvarez said.

You should also bring acceptable identification to the polling place, particularly if you're a first-time voter who registered by mail rather than in person. This provision is a new twist that was part of the federal legislation passed after the 2000 election, Chapin said.

An increasing number of voters are hoping to get around polling-place problems through mail-in absentee ballots — in fact, last month the Florida Republican Party made a controversial pitch for absentee voting in a campaign mailing. But Alvarez said research has shown that voting by mail isn't foolproof, either.

"There are a lot of errors that voters can make," he said. "They should be make sure that they follow strictly all the guidelines — signing their ballot, providing the right address, making sure that it's in the mail on time. An untold number of absentee ballots are disqualified simply because voters make those kinds of mistakes."

Vote early and surely
If you want to vote early and surely, Alvarez advises looking into in-person early voting. Thirty-one states allow you to mark your ballot days in advance under the supervision of election officials. "It helps alleviate long lines at polling places on Nov. 2," he noted. Texas even offers "curbside voting" in advance: An election official will bring the ballot right out to your car.

So what if you run into trouble at the polling place? The Election Protection Coalition has set up a "Voters' Hotline" that provides instant, multilingual assistance for would-be voters who encounter problems. Also through the hotline, the Verified Voting Foundation will be providing Election Day access to its rapid-response technology experts, foundation spokesman Will Doherty said.

"The coalition is using our system, along with an interactive voice-response system, to handle reports of incidents as they occur, and by deploying lawyers and technologists to deal with problems as they are reported," Doherty said.

The coalition's toll-free hotline number is 866-OUR-VOTE, or 866-687-8683.

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