Prohibiting the Punch Card

Voting modernization was losing its momentum, but several states and counties are on a roll with it now.

Nearly a year after the November 2000 elections exposed deep flaws in the country's voting system, changes in election technology are finally getting off the ground. Spurred by new laws and ticking clocks, several counties across the country have signed contracts for new voting equipment; others have released requests for proposals.

Voting-machine improvement was expected to move much faster. Although thousands of bills were introduced on the state and federal levels right after last November's debacle, only a handful passed with meaningful reforms. Months passed while several large commissions conducted studies, counties waited to see what their state governments would do and states waited on Congress. Then, just when serious questions were raised about whether there would be changes in time for the 2002 elections, reform started to pick up. "If there was gridlock, it's clearly breaking right now," says Bill Stotesberry, vice president of Hart InterCivic, which manufactures an electronic voting machine. "There will be a rush of RFPs in the next couple months."

A few states have passed laws either decertifying county use of punch cards--the source of hanging chads and other vote-counting discrepancies--or standardizing equipment via a state system. In other states, some counties, faced with the prospect of going through another election using punch cards, have gone ahead on their own and signed contracts for new systems. In Florida, for instance, where the state's sweeping election-reform law decertifies punch cards as of September 2002, many counties are working to put new systems in place by the March 2002 primaries. The overall process should gather speed nationwide as states certify some of the new touch-screen machines that have moved into the market.

Many counties that have not yet released RFPs are waiting to see what will happen in the upcoming November elections, when some counties, such as Johnson in Kansas and Harris in Texas, show off their new optical-scan and electronic voting machines. In Georgia, the state will conduct trials of seven different voting machines this November.

The upcoming off-year election should help resolve some of the many questions still out there on election reform, such as what kinds of machines punch-card counties will switch to. So far, touch screens and other electronic voting machines seem to have an early edge over optical-scan machines.

It also remains to be seen how well election-machine vendors, who are accustomed to handling just a few counties at a time, will handle a flood of new contracts--especially if there is action on the federal level. In Florida, with so many places looking at the same vendors, counties are rushing just to get their names on the waiting list. "We need to sign a contract as soon as possible to get in line to obtain the equipment," says Jennifer Edwards, supervisor of elections in Collier County, Florida.