States May Not Finish Reforms in Time for 2004 Vote

States racing the clock to complete election reforms (search) in time for the 2004 presidential election may find themselves short-changed, waiting for the federal government to deliver the billions of dollars promised to them to update their voting procedures.

But other states, too impatient to wait for the glacial speeds of bureaucracy in Washington, have taken it upon themselves and already put reforms into action without a federal mandate.

"We've been doing the best we can with the situation we have and we feel confident that we are on schedule in this process. In fact, we've been ahead of the curve in many ways," said Spence Jackson, spokesman for Missouri Secretary of State Matt Blunt.

Congress and President Bush offered $3.5 billion to the states as part of the Help America Vote Act (search) signed into law in October 2002. The states were supposed to get $1.5 billion of that starting in 2003, but so far have received only $670 million, the rest being tied up in Washington.

Another $1.5 billion tranche was promised to the states in the 2004 omnibus spending bill passed by the House of Representatives on Dec. 9. But the Senate has not yet passed the package, and won't get to it until it returns in late January.

"Certainly, it would have been better had the money been available earlier," Jackson said.

Rashad Robinson, an analyst with the Center for Democracy and Technology (search), said that at this rate, some states will be prepared for the presidential election, predicted by many to be a nail-biter, and some states will not.

"All indications point to fact that this election will have higher voter turnout than even our last presidential election," Robinson said. "What we would love to see is the federal government come in and take a stand, help states think this through."

Delayed appropriations is not the only obstacle for getting the cash to the states. As part of the HAVA election reform bill, the money was supposed to be doled out by the Election Assistance Commission (search), which also was tasked with crafting guidelines for states to certify the electronic voting machines mandated for all of the states by 2006.

But the Senate did not confirm the panel's four commissioners -- two Democrats and two Republicans -- until Dec. 10, months later than planned. Critics say the delays stalled local efforts to certify new machines and implement more costly measures dealing with new election procedures and reforms.

"The money needed to be there and the commission needed to be there," said LaShawn Y. Warren, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (search). "As a result, it has had a detrimental impact on what the states could and could not do."

Mary Kiffmeyer, Minnesota Secretary of State and president of the National Association of Secretaries of State (search), said her organization had been lobbying for months to get the money released and the commission confirmed. She said she is pleased that the 2003 funds can now start being delivered.

"This was really a national effort to get this," Kiffmeyer said, noting that 95 percent of states were waiting for the money and the commission before completing bids on the new machines, the most expensive element of any of the election reforms.

Experts estimate that each electronic voting machine (search) costs at least $2,000, depending on the contract, and many vendors are waiting for certification in order to get into the game.

"In any state, you cannot go out to bid on these large purchases until you have the money in the bank," Kiffmeyer said. "Some states did it anyway, counting on the money coming through."

Most states have taken it upon themselves to adopt the more bureaucratic elements of the HAVA reforms. According to the NASS, some states began overhauling their election systems even before HAVA was passed, spurred into action following the 2000 presidential recount in Florida.

As of October 2003, 36 state legislatures had passed 308 HAVA-related bills. In all, state lawmakers have introduced 1,726 bills concerning election reforms.

Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed said his state was already implementing reforms before HAVA passed Congress.

"The Washington state Legislature, after Florida, asked a lot of questions, introduced bills, there's been a lot more scrutiny and attention paid, which I think is very positive," Reed said.

Despite the injection of millions of 2003 funds, several controversies surrounding the effectiveness of the machines remain unresolved. Among the complaints is whether the computerized touch-screen mechanics should be fitted with printers or other attachments that would allow a paper record of the voting for back up.

Already, counties that have purchased electronic voting machines -- including several in Florida and Virginia -- have faced technical problems in recent elections that poll workers, who lack the trouble-shooting experience, have been unable to fix.

Robinson said this is where the federal government needs to step up and get the commission running to provide certification guidelines for the machines and help states implement more uniform standards.

"It's become a hodgepodge effort. Depending on what state you are in, you might have a fair election or you might feel comfortable at the polls," he said. "While we may not want to strip powers from the state, we're electing a president here and at some point we have to make sure people feel there is some leadership on this."

Election officials from state to state say while they hope to be fully HAVA-compliant by the 2006 deadline, they don't expect to have all the reforms in place by 2004, even with the newly-released funding. And even the most aggressive reforms cannot completely prevent fraud and irregularities that can occur in any election.

"No matter what system any state has, if it's a really close election, it's not going to make a difference," said Kiffmeyer.

"Whether we will see another Florida again, I can't necessarily say," said Warren. "However, I can say there are a number of states that are in a much better place than they were when the Florida recount occurred."