U.S. Voters Could See Widespread Problems The midterm vote on Nov. 7 promises the "possibility, if not certainty, of problems at polls nationwide," according to a new report from the Election Reform Information Project. The non-partisan election reform group says electronic voting, voter ID laws and databases of eligible voters are all potential problems.
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U.S. Voters Could See Widespread Problems

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U.S. Voters Could See Widespread Problems

U.S. Voters Could See Widespread Problems

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The vote on November 7 promises the possibility, if not certainty, of problems at polls nationwide. That's the conclusion of a new report from the nonpartisan Election Reform Information Project. Doug Chapin is director of the group's web site, electionline.org, and he joins us in the studio to talk about what they've found. Thanks for coming in.

Mr. DOUG CHAPIN (Election Reform Information Project): My pleasure.

BLOCK: One big concern has to do with technology and will electronic voting machines work. It sounds like there is good reason for concern.

Mr. CHAPIN: There is reason for concern, but what's interesting is that the basis for the concern has changed somewhat over time. In recent years there have been concerns that the machines themselves are somehow not designed in a way that promotes security or reliability and while those concerns persist, in 2006 what we've seen is more of a customer service problem. That the machines, once they arrive, don't always work the way that the people who bought them expect that they will.

BLOCK: And what specific problems will you be looking for then on Election Day?

Mr. CHAPIN: We'll be looking for jurisdictions that have difficulty starting machines. Machines either that won't boot up or won't work the way people thought they were supposed to. We'll be looking for the small glitches that are always reported during an election season. Some computer scientists hate the word glitch, but glitches are problems which aren't maybe disabling but which are annoying to voters. We've seen reports in Virginia that some jurisdictions have machines that lop off the last names of candidates when you get ready to confirm your vote.

Those are the sorts of things which are problems which need to be fixed but they're not - they don't rise to the level of a machine breakdown or a complete malfunction.

We'll also be watching for problems with what people call the human/machine interface and I think you see no better example of that than Montgomery County, Maryland, in the September primary, where the county forgot to pack the access cards with their touch screen machines and as a result no one could use the machines until the cards arrived.

We'll be looking for problems like that. Machines not starting, poll workers not being able to use them, things like that that actually impede the conduct of the vote rather than just annoy voters on Election Day.

BLOCK: One idea behind these machines is that there will be a paper trail, sort of an audit to verify that the ballot was cast correctly. Is that reliable?

Mr. CHAPIN: There are pushes for paper trails across the country. Roughly half the states now either have paper trails or require that if touch screens are used that they provide paper trails.

Paper trail advocates believe that paper trails not only give individual voters assurance that their vote will be counted as they intended it to be cast, but it also provides a permanent record of that vote in case of a recount. Opponents of paper trails believe that if you believe that the machine can be hacked, then the program for producing the paper trail can be hacked.

BLOCK: We've been talking about technological problems. There is another big area of concern, and that has to do with confusion over voter identification laws. A lot of states have been changing the laws on this.

Mr. CHAPIN: Exactly. Voter identification is the other real big issue on election day this year. The new federal law passed in 2002, the Help America Vote Act, mandated a very minimal form of voter ID, for people who register to vote by mail and don't provide ID, but states were given the leeway to go beyond that and enact stricter ID requirements.

And over time, we've seen states adopt not just universal voter ID but actual universal photo ID. There are laws on the books in four states. Two of those states, Georgia and Missouri, have had those law invalidated by courts, but photo ID is the latest sort of rage in the policy world in terms of voter identification at the polls.

BLOCK: There could be a lot of confusion from both voters and people working at the polls of what's actually required.

Mr. CHAPIN: Exactly. Not only do you have the possibility of voters who are required to show ID forgetting to bring it and then either having to go home or risk not have their ballot counted, there's also the risk that poll workers will ask for ID that isn't required. I wouldn't be surprised to hear of poll workers accidentally asking voters or refusing to accept non-photo ID from voters. And if that happens, there is a recipe for problems at the polls.

BLOCK: Doug, when you look at where we are and the changes that have been made since the highly disputed election of 2000, are we better off now than we were then?

Mr. CHAPIN: I think we are. We are definitely in a period of change in the way we conduct our elections, and there have been lots of short term frustrations -machines, lists, laws and the like. But the attention that we're focusing on the electoral process can only be a good thing.

We're in an environment where in an individual race, a tiny number of votes can make a huge difference, and in that kind of an environment, it's difficult to make the changes that election officials are being asked to make because change always brings a little bit of error at the margin, and when we have races within that margin of error, there are bound to be hard feelings and confusion at the polls.

BLOCK: Doug Chapin, thanks for coming in.

Mr. CHAPIN: My pleasure. Thank you.

BLOCK: Doug Chapin is director of electionline.org. The project is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which also helps fund NPR. You can find a full text of the Electionline report on potential voting problems at our Web site, npr.org.

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