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KCStar article:

excerpt:  In Dallas, 18 touch-screen machines were taken out of service during early voting after complaints that votes had been misrecorded. The screens apparently wore out from repeated touching. (Is this really possible? lkt)

Posted on Sun, Nov. 03, 2002
With a recent history of fiascos, elections are expected to drag on

The Kansas City Star
States have adjusted election procedures in an effort to avoid a recurrence of this nightmare, the 2000 Florida re-count.
States have adjusted election procedures in an effort to avoid a recurrence of this nightmare, the 2000 Florida re-count.

Election Day? Try Election Month.

With memories of Florida 2000 still stuck in the public craw like so many hanging chads, election officials nationwide are bracing for a long Tuesday followed by many days -- perhaps weeks -- of ballot challenges, re-counts and unknown outcomes.

Missouri is among a dozen states thought to be prime candidates for severe election hangovers. Some analysts already are betting on a re-count of a tight U.S. Senate contest that could decide the balance of power in Congress.

"Election Day is no longer a one-day process," said Ernest Hawkins, director of voter registration and elections in Sacramento County, Calif. "That sense of finality has given way to a greater awareness for getting an accurate count."

Seldom before have pre-election jitters received such attention.

In Iowa, Republicans have hired a private investigator to check for possible fraud in the ways voters cast absentee ballots.

In Arkansas, Democrats are accusing the GOP of trying to suppress the African-American turnout.

And lawyers for both parties intend to fan out across the nation Tuesday to monitor activity at the polls.

"With 6,800 different election jurisdictions in America, you're going to have problems in places," said Doug Lewis, executive director of the nonprofit Election Center, specializing in election administration. "And campaigns on the losing side are going to use everything at their disposal to try to capitalize on that."

Balloting snafus and even dirty tricks have always been part of elections, but the last presidential election put the spotlight on how mistakes could disenfranchise thousands of voters and bog down the system of democracy.

Now the nation is fixated on the potential for error or abuse: Dozens of states are testing new election procedures and equipment, inviting confusion. Poll workers are dropping out like never before, feeling underpaid and underappreciated after the Florida fiasco.

And Congress, like the electorate, is almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

"This year, especially, you're going to see voters coming to the polls loaded for bear," Lewis said.

Florida's punch-card problems in 2000, which delayed the outcome of the presidential race for 36 days, unmasked the myriad ways a ballot could be bungled. Despite state-by-state tweaking of election procedures, America's patchwork of voting systems remains largely unchanged: Some are antiquated, and none is foolproof.

A culture spoiled by push-button convenience and split-second service remains mystified by all the screwups that go with exercising a precious right.

As an expected 70 million voters prepare to give it another go on Tuesday, Kansas City election director Ray James senses a new national malady on the horizon.

"We've seen road rage," he says. "Maybe we're looking at voter rage."

Rash of accusations

Recent headlines:

 Wisconsin authorities launched an investigation after a TV news crew caught Democratic workers handing out money and free food to residents of a home for the mentally ill.

 A California judge sentenced two GOP workers to four months in jail for forging signatures on voter-registration forms. Alleged motive: They earned $4 for each Republican voter registered.

 In South Dakota a woman hired by the Democratic Party to boost the vote turnout of American Indians is at the center of a 25-county probe into allegedly forged applications for absentee ballots.

The flurry of fraud accusations is partly related to a nationwide movement toward early voting, now used in more than half the states to ease the crush on Election Day.

But early voting will not mean early returns Tuesday. Mail-in votes in Oregon and millions of absentee ballots elsewhere -- including as many as half of those in the closely watched Senate race in Minnesota -- are expected to be tallied after Election Day.

Last week President Bush signed legislation authorizing $3.9 billion in federal aid over three years to localities seeking to update their equipment, fix flaws and curb the potential for fraud in voting systems.

That action, all 161 pages of it, came too late to help election officials this year.

Many states took matters into their own hands out of fear of becoming the next Florida.

For example, Missouri approved provisional voting -- one of the features of the new federal law. It allows people to cast votes even if their names are not on registration rolls; the validity of their ballots will be individually judged following the election.

That review process inevitably will delay the final tallying of close races, said Lewis of the Election Center. A typical provisional ballot requires a half-hour of human investigation. California usually spends the better part of a month counting its provisional ballots.

No matter how laws are changed, few officials foresee the eradication of voter fraud. Kentucky tried four years ago by offering $1,000 rewards to people who turned in those suspected of buying or selling a vote.

The Fraud Busters program recently was ditched because of cold feet.

"We'd get 100 or 200 calls each election," said Kentucky Secretary of State John Brown III. "But we were never successful in making a case, because the people who would call in weren't willing to come forward as witnesses.

"These were people accusing their neighbors, their relatives, and they were reluctant to make enemies, especially in small communities."

`No perfect election'

From the "We're Only Human" file, more headlines:

 Last spring in Austin, Texas, a voter's belligerence so frightened three inexperienced poll workers that they locked the doors of a polling place for 30 minutes.

 South Carolina officials rejected the voter applications of about 100 college students because all had listed the same address -- 701 Oakland Ave. That is the address of Winthrop University; the students live on campus roads without street names.

 In Montgomery County, Md., many voters in the September primary gave up in disgust after waiting two hours in line. The county acknowledged staff shortages and poor training of its poll workers. Tuesday's election will be smooth, officials promised.

"There is no perfect election," Lewis said. "Our definition of a perfect election is when our mistakes don't become public knowledge."

The greatest source of mistakes, officials agree, is man, not machine. Some jurisdictions pay $50 or less for a poll worker to toil 16 hours on Election Day. Many workers receive just a half-hour of training.

And they're getting harder to find, especially in urban areas. Some experts call the struggle to fill polling places with competent workers "a national crisis."

The crisis revealed itself last spring in Los Angeles County, where more than 200 poll workers failed to show up for a primary election.

The workers who do show up are typically the older ones, who are determined to perform their duty.

In a recent election in Kansas City, one elderly worker displaying signs of a stroke had to lie down at a polling place. James, the election director, was stunned to find him sweating on a couch.

"I told him: `You're ill. You've got to leave,' " James said.

Wonders of technology

File the following under "They Can Send a Man to the Moon, but...:"

 In Wake County, N.C., 300 early voters were asked to vote again because touch-screen machines had failed at two of nine locations.

 Dozens of households in California's Bay Area failed to receive absentee ballots because the Postal Service had changed their ZIP codes last summer. The computer spitting out the ballots did not know.

 In Dallas, 18 touch-screen machines were taken out of service during early voting after complaints that votes had been misrecorded. The screens apparently wore out from repeated touching. (Is this really possible? lkt)

"This will be the first election in which the equipment itself will be on the minds of voters," said Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation.

The punch-card method now banned in Florida will continue to be used Tuesday in one out of seven U.S. counties. The most common method of voting -- optical scanning of pencil-marked ballots -- is widely preferred by election officials, but it is not foolproof.

" `Hanging chad' is to punch cards what `stray mark' is to the optically scanned ballot," said Hawkins of Sacramento County. "Look close enough, and you'll find stray pencil marks all over those ballots that the scanner can't read."

Americans will be looking close, for sure, at the first signs of trouble on Tuesday. And some experts say that's healthy, even if it means making way for Election Month.

"Everyone should be much more on their toes now than ever before," said Linda Gibbs, executive director of the Honest Ballot Association.

"Here's the simple fact," she added. "Either it takes longer and it's more accurate, or it's quick and you make mistakes."

To reach Rick Montgomery, national correspondent, call (816) 234-4410 or send e-mail to rmontgomery@kcstar.com.
Lesley Koop Thompson
Customer Service Project Manager
Diebold Election Systems, Inc.
415-235-6553 (office cell)
512-413-7618 (cell)

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