America's voting machinery was supposed to be fixed, but the road to reform has been slow going
That messy 2000 election was supposed to be the jolt America needed. After chronic flaws in the country's voting process became painfully public, an ambitious reform effort was supposed to make hanging chads and butterfly ballots relics of election nightmares gone by.
But nearly six years later, it hasn't turned out that way. In the state of Washington, the 2004 governor's election took more than six months to resolve--again before a court. And some liberal activists still believe that vote tampering and dirty tricks handed Ohio to the GOP, enabling President Bush to win re-election. Now, heading into the midterm congressional elections, despite the expenditure of billions of dollars, a litany of problems remains.
"We've made some substantial progress," says House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat who cosponsored a 2002 election reform law, "but there is a lot left to be done."
Overhaul. On the heels of the Florida debacle, the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, led by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, called for new voting machine technology, statewide voter registration databases, and voter identification provisions (box). What emerged from Congress was the Help America Vote Act, a $3.8 billion effort--$800 million of which still hasn't been appropriated--to revolutionize elections by January of this year.
A great deal of that money went to replace old lever voting machines and punch card systems. Those changes helped in part to record roughly 1 million votes in the 2004 election that would not have been counted in 2000, according to the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project. By Election Day 2006, more than 80 million Americans will cast ballots a different way than they did in 2000, according to Election Data Services, an election consulting firm; more than three times as many counties will use electronic machines.
The 2004 improvements were good news, of course, but the new electronic machines and their potential security flaws have also set off a raging debate among lawmakers, election officials, and computer experts. Some activists' concerns were confirmed when an electronic voting machine failed to record 4,400 votes in a North Carolina election in 2004. In 2005, the Government Accountability Office concluded that electronic machines "hold promise" but have security and reliability questions. Activists have sued at least seven states, including Arizona, New Mexico, and California, to block their use of electronic machines without an accompanying paper trail.
Twenty-six states have tried to allay concerns by passing laws requiring a voter-verified paper audit trail. Still, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law recently concluded that the three most commonly used electronic machines are susceptible to more than 120 security threats; a hacker could, for example, compromise a machine by inserting corrupt software into the machine or by using a wireless device. "Looming over the American electoral system is this concern that any election could be in doubt," says Rep. Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat who wants every state to have a voter-verified paper record and mandate audits. David Bear, spokesman for Diebold Election Systems, the leading manufacturer of electronic machines, dismisses such concerns as "what-if scenarios"; there have been no cases of voting machines being hacked in real-life elections.