New Voting Systems Could Cause Problems in Swing States

Analysts are concerned about some of the new systems being implemented in key states.

Residents stand in line to on the first day of early voting at the Lauderhill Mall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

The first day of early voting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

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After its election's razor-thin margin necessitated the first recount, Palm Beach County took two weeks to account for nearly 3,500 ballots thought missing. When they were found, on shelves with the other ballots, many could not be interpreted. Voters seemed to find the ballot's brand-new format, in which arrows had to be connected, completely unintelligible. Some had checked or circled their answers; others wrote jokes in the margins; one covered the paper with lipstick kisses.

The 2000 mess? No. This Floridian fiasco occurred during the state's Aug. 26, 2008, primary election. And a third round of recounts closed only six weeks before a general election in which, once again, Florida is expected to be a key battleground state. Heading toward November 4, swing states are feeling the pressure. Local officials say they have learned from past mistakes and that they are doing all they can to avoid glitches. Yet analysts are concerned, sometimes about the very improvements being implemented, such as new technologies and voting by mail. States to watch include Ohio, Colorado, and, of course, Florida.

High expectations. In counties including problematic Palm Beach, election officials are working seven days a week to prepare. "We don't see anyone twiddling their thumbs," says Doug Chapin, an election expert at the Pew Center on the States. With historic turnout of as many as 130 million voters nationwide, Chapin says the question becomes whether the system can handle the large number of voters.

One step many counties have made to improve the process has been to replace their voting systems. For the 2008 race, about half of all precincts will use machines that differ from those used in 2004. Combine that with a boom in new voter registrations in the swing states, and the number of voters unfamiliar with their precinct's equipment will be at an all-time high. Most of the changes are away from the touch-screen systems that caused controversy in 2004. Paper ballots, read with optical scans, ease recounts and are thought to be simpler for voters to understand. As a result, 55 percent of Americans will vote on paper this year, compared with 49 percent in 2006. Touch-screen machine use drops to 33 percent from 38 percent in 2006. This marks the first decline analysts have seen in the use of electronic equipment during elections.

In the meantime, more than half the states will test computerized statewide voter databases in a presidential election for the first time. Mandated by the 2002 Help America Vote Act, the systems are meant to provide a uniform way for poll workers to check voters' registration status. But implementation was plagued by setbacks and glitches. Colorado completed its database just this year. Such last-minute changeovers may confuse rather than clarify the process. "Even if we could pick a best technology, which I'm not sure we can right now, if you didn't have time to get used to it, you're opening yourself up to problems on Election Day," Chapin says.

A shortage of machines or ballots is another worry. State laws on machine allocation are often vague, or in the case of Missouri and Pennsylvania, nonexistent, found a recent report by Common Cause and the Century Foundation. This year, most counties are ordering far more ballots than previously to prepare for the expected turnout. At the same time, county officials have pushed for early and absentee voting. This might help ease long lines, since as many as 1 in 3 ballots nationwide could be cast before Election Day, experts say. But absentee ballots could come with a price, because experts say they are more vulnerable than some officials are letting on. If an absentee voter does not fill out the ballot properly, the vote may be nullified. Mail-in ballots also take longer to process, which will cause delays if voters wait until the last minute.

Even if voters and officials alike are diligent, however, many worry about the sheer size of the election. For its 600,000 expected voters, Palm Beach County will need to track 1.2 million pages of ballots. "When you have that much paper and that many human beings all converging on one day, it is a recipe for problems. I'm not going to say disaster, but problems," says County Commissioner Mary McCarty.