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Rights Commission Irked by Pace of Election Reforms

When the nation turns out to cast ballots in this fall's elections, the voting system will be in no better shape than it was in 2000, a panel of voting experts said Friday.

Problems with electronic voting machines in this year's primaries illustrated that changes have been slow, despite the implementation of new standards meant to improve the system, panelists told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (search).

The commission, an independent bipartisan agency, has been examining the voting system since the 2000 presidential election, when the Supreme Court decided the outcome after voting problems in Florida and other states.

"Most states really won't be ready. We're ending up in '04 with the very same problems and issues that were there before," said Mary Frances Berry (search), committee chairperson. The group plans to study the issue of election reform in the fall, shortly before the November elections.

Congress passed the federal Help America Vote Act (search) in 2002 and set new standards — such as requiring ID for first-time voters. The law forced states to look at using electronic voting machines instead of punch cards to avoid the problems with ballots that Florida encountered in 2000. But money to make the changes has been slow in getting to states. Forty-one states have received waivers giving them until 2006 to have computerized voter registration lists.

Because states must replace punchcard and lever machines, voting officials nationwide are buying electronic machines — many of which use touch-screen technology.

That alone doesn't solve the problem of inaccurate votes, said Michael Shamos, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. "They haven't rushed to educate people on how to properly use the machines, which is creating all kinds of problems," he said.

The use of computerized voting has prompted questions about security, reliability and whether or not paper trails should be used. More than a dozen states are considering issuing paper receipts for voters to verify before casting their ballots, but some voting experts warn that there still could be problems, such as discrepancies between those and the computerized ballots.

All this talk about technology and whether votes will even count could cause people to skip voting altogether, said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (search). If people don't feel comfortable, they won't vote, he said.

But the possibility of widespread use of electronic voting could encourage people who are less likely to vote to cast a ballot, particularly minorities and the disabled, said Jim Dickson, with the American Association of People with Disabilities (search). Computerized voting would allow people to vote in different languages and make audio available so that illiterate and blind people can vote on their own.

Dickson, himself blind, said he voted on a touch screen without the help of another person for the first time in this year's primaries. In the 36 years he's been voting, Dickson said, he's had pollworkers who read ballots to him comment on his voting choices and even tell him that they weren't going to bother with reading a referendum to him since no one votes on those anyway.

Electronic voting may not be perfect, but it offers hope to people who otherwise might not be voting, he said.

"Every system messes up. Touch screens mess up the least," Dickson said.