While Florida stepped up last week with sweeping election reform, no other state has gone as far to fix what many say is a national problem made clear during the chaos of Election 2000.

Only two states have even come close so far, leaving the threat that the election problems exposed last fall may wind up before the federal courts — just as the election itself did.

"That is certainly hanging over our heads," said Secretary of State Cathy Cox of Georgia, where a lawsuit seeks uniform voting machines. "It's not at all beyond the realm of possibility to see a federal judge stopping our 2002 elections unless we act."

Nearly half the legislatures are finished with their work for the year, but only Georgia and Maryland took steps for uniform elections. Neither, however, approved funds for them.

Though a few proposals remain alive, observers agree most significant action will wait for another year at least. States that considered significant reform but failed to act include West Virginia, Tennessee and Missouri.

But don't be so quick to predict that means reform is stalling, as some have told Congress, said Marty Stephens, Utah's Republican House speaker and co-chair of the National Conference of State Legislatures' task force on reform.

"It's inaccurate to say it's sputtering out," Stephens said. "By this year or next, every legislature in the United States will take some action to address the problems raised by the election."

Still, money concerns, partisan rivalries and doubt about the best course of action have left the vast majority of the 1,500-plus bills before state legislatures with little or no chance of passage this year. Congress, which many state legislators hoped would pay for equipment upgrades, has yet to agree on any reforms.

"Once the economy did a dipsy-doodle, and legislators are now having to worry about revenue shortfalls ... All of a sudden elections take a back seat again," said Doug Lewis, director of the nonpartisan Election Center in Houston.

Lewis, who is working with several national organizations that seek widespread improvements, said he expects states to act, though slowly.

"My hope is that the delay doesn't mean we've lost the will to do the things that need to be done," he said. "It's just not going to happen on MTV-time. It's not going to be instant gratification."

The action this year has come piecemeal: South Dakota approved a centralized database for voter registration, Virginia required presidential electors to vote for the candidate their state chose, and Utah laid out rules for military ballots.

Florida's $32 million legislation, which Gov. Jeb Bush said he will sign, combines many of the approaches proposed elsewhere: barring punchcard ballots, establishing automatic recounts in tight races and creating standards for recounts.

Though they hope Florida will serve as a model, many advocates for change worry states will turn their attention elsewhere, despite growing documentation of widespread election problems.

Georgia found it had a higher rate of uncounted votes than the Sunshine state, while a Chicago Tribune study found that Illinois officials discarded a larger percentage of ballots than Florida, New York or Ohio.

But Stephens, in Utah, said federal lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in California, Illinois, Florida and Georgia will remind lawmakers. "If states don't deal with the issue, I think the federal government will step in."

The lawsuits allege that states using more than one type of voting machine violate the Constitution's equal protection clause, since people in counties with more error-prone machines would be more likely to have their ballots thrown out. In the ruling that gave George W. Bush the presidency, the high court found that varying recount standards violated voters' equal protection rights.

"The state can't refuse to do things that the Constitution requires on the grounds that they can't pay for it," said Laughlin McDonald, a voting expert with the ACLU in Atlanta. "If the legislatures don't do it, it will fall to the courts."

Still, whether the federal courts will jump back into these election questions remains unclear: The U.S. Supreme Court specifically said its decision applied only to the presidential race in Florida.

In the meantime, the overwhelming majority of states will go into the 2002 midterm elections, and possibly the presidential elections in 2004, with similar equipment and much of the same procedures as last year.

Florida and most of Maryland, under their new legislation, should have new equipment by 2002. Georgia's law aims for 2004.