WASHINGTON – The days of hanging chads, long lines at the polls and inexperienced poll workers running the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections may be distant memories, but they could come sweeping back this November as some states may fail to meet election reform requirements.
Millions of dollars have been spent nationwide for new voting machines, voter databases and ID systems, but lawmakers and elections observers say voters headed to the polls are in danger of finding themselves with familiar problems and outdated election equipment.
"Every single vote should count. Unfortunately, as we have seen in the last two presidential elections, this still is not the case," Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said at a recent election reform panel at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "We still can't guarantee our own citizens that their voice will be heard on Election Day."
Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in response to the contested 2000 presidential election. The legislation, signed by President Bush in October 2002, set a January 2006 deadline for upgrades to be made to the election process.
Paul DeGregorio, who was charged with overseeing the legislation as chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, said states are making strides in implementing new equipment and other aspects of the legislation.
New electronic voting machines will replace paper ballots, lever machines, punch cards and other voting equipment to reduce inaccuracy. Punch card voting should be gone nationwide by the end of the year, DeGregorio said.
“We want to make sure every American has the opportunity to participate in our elections and that every American has trust and belief that every vote is counted accurately,” DeGregorio said.
But with the January deadline come and gone and nine months left until the midterm congressional election, some states are grasping to finish up reforms. A report recently released by Electionline.org, a nonpartisan project that reviews election reform, said states have fallen behind in living up to the HAVA requirements to update voting equipment and create voter registration databases and ID systems.
"The lack of progress in nearly half of the states throws into doubt whether HAVA goals can be achieved in time for the November 2006 election," said the project's president, Doug Chapin.
States are lagging behind the deadline, say some, because they need more money to pay for the projects. Congress has yet to approve a chunk of the bill, and critics say that's unlikely until something bad happens again.
"It's going to need another crisis," said Robert Pastor, executive director of the Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform. "We need federal direction."
The independent commission, set up by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III in March 2005, issued a report to President Bush and members of Congress in September. The 87 recommendations in the report urged a free national voter identification program, paper verification of electronically-cast votes and a regional primary system.
Pastor said the recommendations were made because the commission felt the current federal legislation wouldn’t prevent voter fraud and other problems.
"HAVA, while a very important step forward, is clearly inadequate," Pastor said.
Sample Arguments in the States
The Carter-Baker Commission recommended a series of election reforms such as mandatory photo IDs, but not all states have supported the idea. Some states have taken it upon themselves to approve extra measures to prevent an election crisis, but critics say those decisions could end up disenfranchising voters.
Georgia state lawmakers passed a voter ID bill signed into law by Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue. It went into effect in August 2005 after the Justice Department signed off on it. According to the Voting Rights Act, Georgia and other states that have histories of suppressing minority voting are required to get Justice Department approval to change their election laws.
A federal judge blocked the law last October. An appeals court upheld the ruling.
The Georgia law would have required a state ID card, which carries an estimated cost of up to $35, if a voter doesn’t have a driver’s license with a photo. Perdue said some cards would be provided for free to those who cannot afford it.
U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy wrote that the photo ID rule “is likely to prevent Georgia’s elderly, poor and African-American voters from voting. For those citizens, the character and magnitude of their injury – the loss of their right to vote – is undeniably demoralizing and extreme.”
Current Pennsylvania law requires identification from voters casting a ballot in a polling place for the first time. But Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell said this week he will veto a measure to require voter ID cards at the polls. Rendell has cited concerns about putting individuals like nursing home residents and poorer voters at a disadvantage in being able to meet ID requirements.
Republicans argue that requiring ID will avoid voter fraud by ensuring that a voter only casts one ballot in an election.
“It would actually make voters feel better about the process because they’ll know that their votes are being counted properly,” said Erik Arneson, spokesman for state Senate Majority Leader David J. Brightbill.
Arneson said if Rendell goes through with the veto, state GOP lawmakers won’t have enough votes to override it.
Other states are concerned about the reliability of new voting equipment. In Maryland, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and state lawmakers say they are worried that their electronic voting machines might break or pose security problems.
Ehrlich wrote to the state election board last week, saying he was not confident the state could carry out fair and accurate elections this year because of unreliable voting machines. State senators also held a hearing to review the electronic voting machines that do not spit out a paper trail.
Delegate Elizabeth Bobo, D-Howard, said a one-year lease of optical scanners -- until a final resolution is found -- would cost the state an estimated $6 million.
"Everyone who is knowledgeable on this issue agrees that they are more secure than any other machine," Bobo said. Other state senators said they didn't think they could get the machines in place before the election.
"I just want to get through the 2006 election," said state Sen. James Brochin, D-Baltimore County. "I worry about this catastrophe in 2006."
Averting Another Crisis
Despite concerns, many Americans are likely to see changes at the polls in November. But even with positive results, problems may arise.
New voting machines and other equipment in jurisdictions pose a risk of denying voters the chance to cast ballots, Chapin said. Other problems could stem from inexperienced poll workers using new technology or voter ID databases.
“Anytime you have people moving from familiar to unfamiliar technologies, you’re dealing with error,” Chapin said. "We’ve already seen the first wave of change-based confusion over provisional voting."
Partisanship also gets in the way of implementing election reforms, Chapin said, citing Pennsylvania's debate over the voter ID card.
“Right now there is a very fierce, partisan divide across the country,” Chapin said.
Another crisis may be the only catalyst to push Congress to act again, as it did in passing the election reform legislation in 2002, Obama said.
"I don't see any prospect of change at the federal level any time soon," Obama said. "I think this is early on in the process. I think more interest will be focused as we get closer to the '06 election.
"With the resources and the technology we have available today, there is no imaginable reason why any American should have problems casting a ballot," Obama said.
Capital News Service's Jared Hopkins contributed to this report.