Butterflies Are Gone but Poll Problems May Persist

The butterflies are gone for good, but in some places the chads are sticking around.

The effects of the $3.86 billion federal election reform bill signed by President Bush last week won’t be felt until the 2004 election. But counties nationwide have worked to prevent an encore of Election 2000's presidential recount mess, which left the winner hanging in the balance for five weeks and sparked endless talk of butterfly ballots and hanging chads.

"Improvements have been done at the state level," said Kenneth Gross, an election law attorney. "Several states have appropriated funds and upgraded their systems, most notably Florida and Georgia."

Both states completely did away with the punch-card and lever systems. Georgia converted all 159 of its counties to touch-screen voting terminals that use technology similar to that of ATM machines.

Florida implemented some touch-screen and some optical scanners, where voters cast their ballots by filling in ovals -- similar to an SAT answer sheet -- next to the candidates of their choice; votes are registered by scanning machines.

Many other voters across the country who hit the polls on Election Day will also see touch-screen machines and optical scan cards, intended to reduce invalid ballots.

"[Local elections officials] were looking to eliminate overvoting and reduce undervoting," said Mark Radke, voting industry director of Diebold Elections Systems, which makes the touch-screen technology used in Georgia and Maryland.

Overvoting is when more than one candidate is chosen for the same office; undervoting is when no choice is registered for a particular race. Radke said the machines allow voters to change their choices and don’t permit overvoting. They also provide a summary screen reviewing voter picks before ballots are cast.

With the election reform bill on the books, it’s likely many counties across the country will be switching to touch-screen machines.

The bill will dole out $3.86 billion over three years, giving $4,000 to every precinct that opts to replace its old punch-card and lever systems with the newer optical scan or touch-screen methods.

The law also requires provisional voting, meaning those whose names aren’t on voter rolls are still allowed to cast ballots if they claim eligibility. The ballots would then be set aside until their eligibility is confirmed.

The bill also established statewide registration lists using voters’ driver’s license numbers or their last four Social Security digits as identifiers.

Many states had already implemented upgrades before the federal law passed. According to electionline.org, a non-partisan, non-advocacy clearinghouse for election law information, 2002 saw several reforms enacted:

--Eleven states passed reforms, including machine and voter registration database upgrades, requiring federal funding to take effect;

--Eight states passed provisional voting rules;

--Eight states approved statewide voter registration databases;

--Four states approved forms of voter identification;

--Eleven states approved vote-counting, voter-intent or recount standards;

--Nine states altered rules for absentee voters;

--Two states and the District of Columbia approved rules allowing teenagers to work in polling places.

Thirteen states did nothing or had idle legislatures. And many voters will still be casting their ballots the old-fashioned way, with punch cards or levers.

"Punch cards are still very much in use around the country – there are people who like them," said Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org.

One kind of punch card that won’t be making an appearance this year is the so-called butterfly ballot, which plagued Palm Beach County voters in 2000.

The cards were two pages, with candidates’ names in staggered blocks that alternated from left to right like steps; some running for the same office were listed on facing pages instead of all in one vertical column, and voting holes were lined up along the middle.

Because it was unclear what holes matched what names, numerous voters chose a candidate they didn’t intend to pick or voted for more than one person for the same office. As a result, many ballots were deemed invalid.

"We have seen the last of butterfly ballots," said Gross. "They are more extinct than Triceratops."

But even without the butterfly, Florida already has had its first disaster with the new technology. In September's Democratic primary, some poll workers were unable to demonstrate how to use the machines.

Radke said Diebold, which wasn’t involved with the Florida upgrades, made sure to train all poll workers using its technology in Georgia and Maryland.

But many experts agree that though upgrades will help, there’s always the possibility for chaos -- especially in close races with large voter turnouts.

"I think we have improved the system with this new law," Gross said. "But because of human error and the potential for technological breakdowns and discriminatory conduct, you’re never going to have a perfect system."