WASHINGTON – In anticipation of another tight presidential contest in 2004, elections officials are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst as they seek to deter rampant voter fraud (search) and irregularities.
One election official told Foxnews.com that the Florida recount (search) — which delayed the results of the 2000 presidential election by five weeks — taught everyone a lesson, including to think ahead as they plan for the 2004 vote.
"Every secretary of state knows if a close election comes to their state it's going to be open season on everything," said the official who did not want to be named.
"If it comes down to a few votes, it won't matter who you are," the official said. "I think everyone is getting prepared for that. Everybody is thinking about it."
Since 2000, most states have taken practical measures to reduce the potential for voter fraud, which typically includes people voting more than once or voting illegally, registering to vote under false pretenses, intimidating or misleading voters at the polls and other so-called "dirty tricks" that are often employed when the stakes are high.
Hundreds of such allegations, many of which resulted in federal indictments, came out of the 2000 race between Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush and then-Democratic Vice President Al Gore.
"Really dirty politics — it's about power, it’s about control — and it’s an issue we're starting to turn the other way," said Cam Savage, a spokesman for Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita.
Indiana has been grappling with continued fraud in state and local elections — most recently resulting in several indictments and prosecutions in East Chicago, Lake County.
Like other election officials, Rokita has used funds allocated under the federal Help America Vote Act (search) to upgrade to electronic voting machines and institute tougher voter registration procedures.
Congress allocated more than $650 million to the states under HAVA and is poised to pass another $1.8 billion in the 2004 fiscal budget.
"I think as [HAVA] gets rolled forward into the future, it will have an impact," said Minnesota Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer, who is also the president of the National Association of Secretaries of State (search).
"I don't think we can get it all done in one election, but I think we are going to see progress," she added.
As of October, 1,726 bills regarding election reform have been introduced in state legislatures across the country. Of those, 308 passed and 485 are still pending.
"We feel we have better laws and better rules in place than prior to November 2000," said Spence Jackson, spokesman for Missouri Secretary of State Matt Blunt.
Missouri's St. Louis County (search) was a hotbed of fraud allegations following the 2000 election, mostly revolving around ballot tampering, people voting multiple times, busses dropping voters off to vote in the wrong precincts and polls being kept open past closing time. Months after the election, Blunt acknowledged that "charges of improper voting have marred elections in St. Louis for generations."
The state instituted new rules after that election, including a requirement that each voter show identification before voting at the polls, that counties create uniform voting and election process standards and that new anti-fraud measures be put in place, said Jackson.
But even anti-fraud and election reform procedures can spark controversy. The GOP claimed massive fraud in Milwaukee in 2000 was reason enough to require voters to show photo ID before casting a ballot.
"Is it possible that this kind of fraud and deceit could have tipped the scales [in 2000]? We believe it could have," said Chris Lato, spokesman for the Republican Party of Wisconsin.
Milwaukee County voted for Gore, 249,956 votes to 161,016 for Bush. Bush lost the state by roughly 5,700 votes.
"Obviously it is a concern to us as the 2004 election approaches. It's expected to be another close race," he said. "It's one of those times where every vote counts."
But in August, Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed the GOP-supported voter ID proposal, charging it would disenfranchise voters.
Seth Bofelli, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, accused the GOP of manufacturing fraud charges to pass the ID bill, which Democrats say would have disenfranchised elderly voters, minorities and students.
"Those are three demographics that traditionally vote Democratic," he said. "We're not going to let that happen."
Perhaps the most controversial of all the election reforms so far is the institution of electronic touch-screen voting machines (search). Each state must replace all manual systems with these machines by 2006. Recent studies have indicated that the machines — run by computers — can lose votes, are not tamper-proof and do not provide a "paper trail" if a recount is necessary.
An estimated 20 percent of towns and counties are using the touch-screen machines, despite problems that emerged during the 2002 and 2003 elections and warnings from computer experts that the machines are untrustworthy and could pose new problems in 2004.
"It's our worst nightmare," said David Dill, a Stanford University computer scientist who started scientist-supported www.verifiedvoting.org to attract attention to the problems of touch-screen machines.
Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., has introduced a bill that would require states to either implement machines that can keep a paper trial by 2004 or return to paper ballot until they can do so.
Rashad Robinson, spokesman for the Center for Voting and Democracy (search), said he worries these machines have the potential for creating a new wave of voter irregularities in the future, and speculated that any allegations of mishandling votes by computers in the 2004 election could throw the whole race into a Florida-like debacle.
"What's going to happen in the big cities and swing states?" he said. "We have to get it right. We hope the federal government will come in and take a strong role."