Voters clamored for reform after the fiasco in Florida four years ago. But when they return to vote again for president on Nov. 2, many may be surprised to discover how little has changed.
Instead of brand-new equipment, computerized voter-registration lists and other improvements, most voters will find the same machines they used last time, few changes for poll workers, and little sign of the overhaul Americans were promised after the 2000 election.
"Everybody was saying, `Oh, we'll have everything new in 2004,'" said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services Inc., a consulting firm. "We're in a situation of catch-up now, not being able to implement everything that people thought was going to take place."
Money shortages and delays have stymied the goals of the Help America Vote Act that Congress passed in 2002. The act was never fully funded, the new federal agency it created was appointed nine months late, and most states asked for two-year waivers of key requirements, pushing off the creation of voter-registration databases and the replacement of punch card and lever machines to 2006.
Come November, three-quarters of the voters will use the same machines as they did in 2000. Nearly 30 percent will vote on the punch card and lever machines now widely regarded as unreliable.
A growing number of critics contend that with only weeks to go before another election that promises to be extremely close, there is a high risk of the kind of vote-counting delays and disputes that tied the country in knots four years ago, when the presidential race was decided by 537 votes in Florida.
The Help America Vote Act "is a broken promise," said California Voter Foundation President Kim Alexander.
"It was hugely disappointing," said R. Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, a Houston nonprofit organization that works with election officials. "Had the appointment process been quicker, had the funding process been quicker, we certainly could have gotten to the infrastructure changes far sooner and we probably could have had some major impacts on 2004."
Others more optimistic
Some lawmakers and election officials are more optimistic, noting that the major reforms were never designed to kick in before 2006. They also point to some important changes in November, most notably, the availability of provisional ballots nationwide for the first time. These ballots will allow people to vote even when there are questions about their registration, a problem that disenfranchised 1.5 million or more voters in 2000, according to estimates from civil rights groups.
"HAVA never expected election reform to happen in six months, or a year, or even by the November 2004 election," said DeForest B. Soaries, the Republican chairman of the new U.S. Election Assistance Commission. "Anyone who supported HAVA, anyone who voted for HAVA, anyone who read HAVA understood that this was going to be a process and not an event."
But Soaries is quick to acknowledge frustrations, including troubles with his own agency, which was given just $1.2 million in 2004 instead of the $10 million authorized by law. Election officials say Congress got sidetracked by other issues, such as the war in Iraq, which also tightened up budgets.
Also, unforeseen questions about the reliability of electronic voting machines have forced county and state officials to rethink purchases of touch-screen machines once viewed as the solution to their problems.
The commission has already funneled some $1.9 billion to states, and an additional $1 billion remains to be distributed. But the commission will not be ready to issue guidelines for what kinds of machines to buy until next April or later.
State election officials have had to make huge financial commitments without guidance as they prepare for Nov. 2 and then for 2006, when voting machines must meet a series of new technical requirements. By then, voters must be alerted when they mistakenly select more than one candidate, they must be able to check and change votes before casting ballots, and each polling place must have a machine that disabled voters can use without help.
The touch-screen machines that most easily meets these new requirements have increasingly fallen out of favor. Up to 50 million people will use the machines in November, but Election Day failures and warnings from computer scientists that electronic vote counts can be manipulated have created so much public doubt that many registrars are wary of buying touch-screens.
Some states are not waiting for federal guidance. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last month signed a bill that by 2006 will ban the use of electronic voting machines that do not produce paper records of every ballot cast. Legislators in nearly two dozen states have introduced similar bills.
Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale is among those who need to buy new equipment soon, with or without federal guidelines.
"If we wait until midyear 2005 before we know what the technical standards might be for the EAC, it will be too late for us," Gale said. For now, Nebraska officials will "just make the best judgment possible in a very confusing environment."