Goodbye Mr. Chad

Experts have warned for years that antiquated voting procedures could lead to disaster. Now they have. Will that be enough to change the system?

Hardly anybody wants to think about the 2002 election at this point, but one prediction is safe--the means of conducting it won't be quite the same ones that produced the Florida debacle of last November. Still, the road to change is likely to be much bumpier than many reformers realize.

Before last November 7, the inaccuracies of American vote counting were a reasonably well-kept secret. Now they are not. "We've all known that the election system has a lot of flaws and inefficiencies," admits Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox, "but the public has always believed that every vote was counted. It's been an airing of dirty laundry." In the past two months, county officials all over the country have been saying to themselves what Cox says: "There but for the grace of God go I."

This past election year, nearly 20 percent of the precincts in the country used the Votomatic punch-card system, the same one that created all the problems in Palm Beach County. Thousands of other precincts continue to use century-old lever-style voting machines whose gears stick occasionally, resulting in uncounted votes.

In the aftermath of Florida, Congress will urge changes on the states, and the states will urge them on the local governments that retain ultimate jurisdiction over the American electoral system. But despite last fall's embarrassment, many of the local governments will resist, or comply only grudgingly. As Beverly Kaufman, the county clerk in Harris County, Texas, likes to say, "Changing voting systems is like having a baby. It's painful."

Ideas for broad-based reform began emerging almost as soon as "dimpled chad" became a household term. By early December, six members of Congress had already put forth proposals to study the system, provide federal matching funds or mandate a uniform national ballot or national voting machine.

The federal government can do all that, but in the past it has been extremely reluctant to exercise its authority over what is historically a decentralized system. In the 1970s, when Congress ordered the Federal Election Commission to set national standards for voting machines, it was careful to make the standards voluntary.

And for the most part, the states are as reticent in dealing with local election procedure as Washington is in dealing with the states. As things stand now, most of them simply certify election results and authorize minimum standards for voting equipment. The few states that take an active role providing funds or mandating a single kind of voting machine, such as Connecticut, Rhode Island and Alaska, are states where county government is weak or non-existent.

Still, in the wake of the Bush-Gore standoff, several states have shown signs of movement. The secretaries of state of Kentucky, West Virginia and Georgia have each called for a vast expansion of the state role in running elections. "I would love to see Georgia have a uniform standard," says Cathy Cox. "Before this election, it was definitely an uphill battle to get public interest. All of a sudden, I have a great renewed interest that these are not such radical ideas."

To many counties, however, the idea of state and/or federal intervention does sound radical--even a little dangerous. For all the problems that the 2000 election pointed up, local officials continue to insist that voting is not one-size-fits-all, and that a single uniform system or ballot would infringe on individual needs and stifle creativity. "I don't know that all the pegs fit in the same size holes," says Harris County's Beverly Kaufman. "I don't want a handful of people making that choice for me."

The fact is that different states and counties have nurtured fiercely independent voting cultures, depending on history and local custom. In the Pacific Northwest, an extremely high percentage of voters has historically used absentee ballots, encouraging Oregon to move this year to mail-in votes only. In New York, turn-of-the-century election fraud spurred a law outlawing paper ballots, and the state has used lever machines throughout the decades since.

In the end, though, the biggest impediment to creating consistency in election procedures isn't local culture. It's money. Eliminating antiquated election systems throughout the country would cost many billions of dollars--no one can say just how many. It's been estimated that Los Angeles County alone, to cite one example, would need $100 million to convert its current punch-card system to a more modern method.

Crockett County, Tennessee, with a population of just 13,441, doesn't have to worry about expenditures of that scope. But officials there still don't want to make the investment that new voting machines in their 12 precincts would require. "When you're talking about small counties, the bottom line is the dollar," says Pat Forsythe, Crockett County administrator of elections. "Unless someone offers to replace it for us, it's probably not going to be replaced."

The likely course for the federal government to take with these problems is not a set of mandates but rather a program of matching grants. Combined with similar offers from state governments, federal financial assistance would undoubtedly push many counties to switch from punch-cards and lever machines to high-tech optical scan and direct-record electronic systems.

Even in advance of new state or federal assistance, several large counties around the country have recently announced modernization plans, including Harris County in Texas, Sussex County in New Jersey, and Fulton County in Georgia, where the punch-card system actually was first used 36 years ago.

But recent history suggests that no matter how much money is made available by matching grant, some counties will simply remain as they are--even if that means keeping ancient lever machines or the much- maligned punch-cards. Throughout the 1980s, Kentucky made updating its lever machines a top priority. Eight counties refused to modernize. "When I first came into office, I thought one single voting machine might be a good idea," says John Brown, the Kentucky secretary of state. "But some counties don't trust anything that looks like a computer or feels like a computer."

Jane Hague, a council member in King County, Washington, and president of the National Association of Counties, says that even if state and federal governments approve financial aid packages or matching funds to change election procedure, modernization may be incomplete. While many counties will take advantage of the opportunity, others will stick with what they--and the voters--are accustomed to. "We're still going to see some chad hanging around," Hague predicts.

Most experts contend that the refusal to abandon punch-cards, at the very least, is asking for trouble. A 1988 report for the National Bureau of Standards, distributed to thousands of election administrators, recommended that the system be eliminated due to frequent undervotes and recounting errors. Roy Saltman, the author of that report, cites one U.S. House election where 4 percent of ballots registered no vote, despite the fact that there was only one contest on the ballot. It is impossible, Saltman says, that so many people would have trooped to the polls to abstain in the only election taking place. "We need to get rid of pre-scored punch-card voting," says Saltman, now retired from the government and working as an independent consultant. "It's just awful."

It's not that local officials have been unaware of the problems. It's that, as Larry Naake, of the National Association of Counties, puts it, "if a county has to choose between a variety of jails, hospitals and fire protection, it's easy to delay upgrading their whole election system because it's not a life-or-death issue... There's no perfect system. Investing in a system that's better, but not perfect, is a difficult thing to do. Is the marginal increase in efficiency worth the large amounts of money?"

Vendors attempting to sell local governments on modern voting technology report this same sort of resistance. They say even after county officials are convinced that electronic voting machines can save paper costs, improve counting speed and eliminate inaccuracy, it is still difficult to get them to spend money on voting reform at the expense of competing priorities. "County commissioners have so many people with so many needs," says Phil Foster, of Sequoia Pacific, an electronic voting machine company. "They have to look at the most pressing issue." And an election many months in the future is almost never the most pressing issue.

There is growing evidence, however, that local governments that make the investment in better voting technology actually do save money relatively quickly. Riverside County, California, overhauled its election procedures after the 1998 election, when officials noticed that ballot printing costs alone had gone over $1 million per election. In addition to printing thousands of ballots that were never used due to low turnout, the county was facing new demands that it begin printing additional ballots in Spanish. So Riverside switched last year to new high-tech touch-screen voting machines. Riverside was not the only county in the nation to use touch-screen voting last November, but it was by far the largest.

Each of the 4,250 machines that Riverside had to purchase cost about $3,000. But the county expects to save roughly $600,000 in each subsequent election year through reduced printing costs. And the touch-screen system offers formidable advantages beyond cost savings. Each voter is given a smartcard encoded with personal residence information, and in theory, anyone could cast his vote at any station in the county--not just at a home precinct.

This form of open-station voting is currently against the law in California, where each precinct is supposed to use a different ballot marked specifically for local use. But efforts are under way to expand the law beyond the restriction of one specific polling place per voter. If that change goes through, voters in 2002 would be able to cast ballots at home, on lunch break at work, or anywhere else in the county they chose. "This new voting technology is like a racehorse," says Mischelle Townsend, the Riverside registrar of voters. "But state laws are putting a bit in its teeth and holding it back."

Change is coming. How much of it will be implemented by the next Election Day is far from certain. What is clear, however, is that antiquated and inaccurate election technology has remained in use all over America for years despite ample warning of potential disaster. "We don't do things in this country unless there's a crisis," says Roy Saltman, who warned of punch-card danger more than a decade ago. "Now we have a crisis."