Pointing the Way to More Reliable Voting

What can local and state governments learn learn from the latest errors in the voting process? How can they work to make the system more reliable heading into the 2008 presidential election?

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There was no voting meltdown last Tuesday a la Florida 2000, but there were still lots of problems at polling sites across the country. Now voting rights advocates and election officials are reviewing the results to figure out what needs to be fixed before 2008. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: There won't be a recount in Virginia's close Senate race because Republican George Allen conceded to Democrat Jim Webb. But if there had been a recount, it might have exposed what many see as continued weaknesses in the nation's voting system. For one thing, many of the votes were cast electronically, so there are no paper ballots to double-check the results.

And Tova Wang at the Century Foundation says there would've been disputes over counting provisional ballots cast by voters who ran into problems at the polls.

Ms. TOVA WANG (Century Foundation): Virginia's law is that if you cast a provisional ballot in the wrong precinct, which in many instances can mean you went to the wrong desk in the right gymnasium, that vote will be thrown away.

FESSLER: And that's troublesome in a state where some voters reported receiving phone calls directing them to the wrong polling sites, something the FBI is investigating. Tova Wang says while things could've been worse on Tuesday, they were bad enough.

Ms. WANG: I think the bar should be really high when we're talking about our democracy and that even though it didn't affect any of the outcomes that we can tell so far, the fact that we know that thousands of people most likely were denied the right to vote through various mechanisms this year really indicates that we have some work to do.

FESSLER: Many voters had to wait hours to cast their ballots because of insufficient equipment or malfunctioning machines. Others found that their names weren't on voter registration lists or that they were asked to show ID they didn't have. There were also reports of vote flipping, where a voter pressed one name on a touch screen machine only to have it register for someone else.

Professor DAVID DILL (Stanford University): This problem is disgraceful.

FESSLER: David Dill is a computer scientist at Stanford University and founder of the Verified Voting Foundation, which questions the use of electronic voting equipment.

Prof. DILL: People are speculating that it has to do with calibration of touch screens and whatever. But we don't have the definitive answer. And we can't leave it to the vendors or people who are just speculating to answer. We need a serious technical and independent investigation where the results are made public.

FESSLER: He and others also want Congress to adopt legislation requiring paper ballot backups on electronic machines. And Wang says more needs to be done to ensure there's enough voting equipment so people don't have to choose between long lines and not voting at all.

One problem is money. Congress authorized $3.9 billion for new equipment after the 2000 election, but $800 million of that has yet to be appropriated. And states say they need the funds.

Paul DeGregorio is chairman of the Federal Election Assistance Commission. He thinks things went pretty well this week, considering.

Mr. PAUL DEGREGORIO (Federal Election Assistance Commission): It's an election that was a transition election for many jurisdictions around the country to new equipment and voters being introduced to new equipment for the first time.

FESSLER: In fact, that involved about a third of the nation. DeGregorio thinks many of this year's problems can be avoided in 2008 with better training and more poll workers. He says making Election Day a federal holiday would help, freeing up more people to work at the polls.

But those advocating this and other changes worry that the lack of a major disaster this year might diminish enthusiasm for any significant reform.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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