STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Already this primary season, questions are being raised about voting machines. New Hampshire had a recount, and in South Carolina some machines would not start. Now more than half the states are preparing for their turn, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
Unidentified Man: Clinton, Clinton, Obama...
PAM FESSLER: Over the past week, teams of counters have sorted through ballots cast in New Hampshire's Democratic primary. Then-candidate Dennis Kucinich had asked for a recount because of suspicions that optically scanned ballots unfairly favored Hillary Clinton.
The recount found only a few minor discrepancies, but it did make a point. Listen again.
Unidentified Man: Obama. Obama.
FESSLER: Hear that paper? There were actual ballots to count.
Representative RUSH HOLT (Democrat, New Jersey): The good news is that in New Hampshire there is a verifiable voting system.
FESSLER: New Jersey Democratic Congressman Rush Holt has been pushing for years to require some form of paper for all voting. He's just introduced a new bill to give federal funds to any jurisdiction that changes to a paper-backed system by November.
Rep. HOLT: Unless we act, you can be sure that there will be some doubt in some counties or states this year about the federal election results.
FESSLER: And as if on cue, South Carolina's Republican presidential primary last weekend raised new concerns. In Horry County, which includes Myrtle Beach, election workers were unable to get 80 percent of the touch-screen machines running on time. Many voters had to use emergency paper ballots, and some were told to come back later after the paper ballots ran out.
This set off an anti-machine buzz in the blogosphere. But Chris Whitmire, a spokesman for the State Election Commission, says the problem was not the equipment.
Mr. CHRIS WHITMIRE (State Election Commission): Any voting system is dependent on its user following the proper operating procedures, and in this case Horry County election officials missed a step.
FESSLER: That step was closing out tests performed on the machines before the elections, which left some test votes still recorded and any affected machine locked up.
Mr. WHITMIRE: It's really a good thing. We don't want the voting machine to allow itself to be open with votes already on it.
FESSLER: Whitmire says the problem was compounded when poll workers failed to tell voters they could vote on any piece of paper after official ballots were gone. He says the state is trying to make sure these problems aren't repeated this Saturday, when Democrats hold their primary.
But the incident has led to fresh calls for the state to replace its voting machines, which are, as one advocate notes...
Mr. WARREN STEWART (Verified Voting Foundation): The same equipment that they used in Sarasota County in November 2006.
FESSLER: That's Sarasota County, Florida, where there's still a dispute over why 18,000 ballots showed no votes in a contentious congressional race.
Warren Stewart is with Verified Voting, a group pushing for paper ballots. He notes that several states voting February 5th, such as Georgia and New Jersey, will also use machines without a paper backup.
Mr. STEWART: If there's questions or a razor-thin margin and there's some issues that need to be resolved, there's really no way to resolve them.
FESSLER: But most election officials say they do have confidence in the machines, that there's no evidence anyone has ever manipulated one to change a vote. In fact, they think they're more reliable than paper, which can be lost or damaged. But these officials, including Ken Baird of Kings County, California, are increasingly resigned to a changing mood.
Mr. KEN BAIRD (Election Officer, Kings County): The security issues, while they're important, I think have been kind of blown out of proportion. But at the same time, if these systems have been portrayed, you know, so negatively that voters have no confidence in the systems, then it may be time to move on to something else.
FESSLER: So on February 5th, his county, like many others, is reluctantly abandoning electronic voting machines and returning to paper.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
INSKEEP: To learn how other early primary states are turning back to paper ballots, go to npr.org/elections.