Five years after the vote-counting debacle in Florida suspended the election of a new U.S. president, California and other states are embroiled in a contentious debate over how voters should cast their ballots.
The maligned punch cards that snarled the 2000 count are all but gone. But with electronic machines under attack as unreliable and vulnerable to hackers, there is little consensus about what the new technology should look like.
That has left many counties nationwide in turmoil as they struggle with unproven technology while state regulations remain in flux and the federal government offers minimal guidance.
In some places, voters are facing their third balloting system in five years.
In California, counties have lurched from one voting system to another as the state has written and rewritten standards. Several counties are scrambling to redo their June election plans after the state's top elections official raised new questions last month about an electronic voting machine in use for years.
Miami officials talk of scrapping their 3-year-old electronic machines, while Mercer County, Pa., officials want to keep theirs but were ordered by state authorities to take them out of service after glitches during the 2004 presidential election.
"It pretty much left the county up a tree," said Tom Rookey, elections chief of the Steel Belt county on the Ohio border.
In Connecticut, the secretary of state is tussling with the federal government over how quickly the state must replace its decades-old lever-style voting machines with electronic machines.
Indiana's largest county has sued the company that sold it electronic voting machines. Across the border in Ohio, the same company has sued the state.
"It's been crazy," said San Diego County Registrar of Voters Mikel Haas, who said he is returning to paper ballots because the state refused to recertify more than 10,000 electronic machines the county bought two years ago. "Everyone is in uncharted territory here."
The arcane world of voting technology and ballot counting once drew little attention from anyone other than elections officials.
But 2000 changed everything.
"Everyone looked at what was coming out of Florida -- scenes of judges squinting to look at ballots -- and agreed there had to be a better way to do this," said Doug Chapin, head of the nonpartisan Election Reform Information Project. "There was a real push toward computerized paperless machines to get away from these chads."
Congress in 2002 passed the Help America Vote Act, pledging nearly $4 billion to help states upgrade their voting systems. The same year, California passed its own $200-million bond for the same purpose.
The flood of money fueled a nationwide spending spree on high-tech machines that were expected to revolutionize vote counting.
But the machines often have not proved as reliable as hoped.
And while states and counties rushed to buy them, elections officials struggled to regulate how machines should record votes and safeguard results.
Although the Help America Vote Act set up a federal commission to assist the states, the Election Assistance Commission did not come into existence until 2004, more than a year late. And only in December did it release voluntary voting-machine guidelines.
"In voting technology, the pace of innovation was outpacing the regulation," Chapin said.
The result has sometimes been chaotic.
In Orange County, thousands of voters got the wrong ballots when they tried to use the county's electronic machines in March 2004.
In coastal Carteret County, N.C., more than 4,400 electronic votes were lost in the November 2004 election, throwing at least one close statewide race into uncertainty for more than two months.
And in Dade County, Fla., home to Miami and a central battleground in the disputed 2000 presidential election, the elections chief resigned earlier this year amid revelations that a coding glitch in the county's 3-year-old electronic voting system had resulted in hundreds of lost votes in six elections.
The new elections chief, Lester Sola, is talking about replacing the $24.5-million system with paper ballots that can be counted by an optical scanner.
"I think the state may have overreacted," Sola said, explaining that the pressure to replace punch cards caused many elections officials to turn to untested systems. "That created a really difficult situation not only for Miami-Dade but for other Florida counties as well."
Many jurisdictions, to be sure, have seen improvements. And although there were scattered problems in the 2004 presidential election, there were no vote-counting crises on the scale of Florida's 2000 fiasco.
Georgia, which spent $54 million in 2002 to switch to a single electronic voting system, has dramatically reduced the number of so-called lost votes, according to a recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
But the problems that hit other states came as something of a surprise, said Michael Alvarez, co-director of the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project, which was created by the two universities after the 2000 elections. "Most of us had hoped the new electronic voting machines would be superior," he said.
Adding to the difficulties was the unexpected emergence of security as a central issue in the modernization debate.
Soon after 2000, a cadre of activists and computer scientists began raising alarms that electronic systems could be breached by hackers who could change election results with just a few keystrokes.
Critics focused much attention and suspicion on Ohio-based Diebold, the industry leader, whose chief executive had written in a fundraising letter that he was committed to helping President Bush carry Ohio in 2004.
Many elections officials and manufacturers initially dismissed the activists, arguing that the new systems were more reliable and tamper-proof.
"There was a level of trust with vendors, who said, 'Don't worry; it's a computer,' " said Pam Smith, nationwide coordinator for the Verified Voting Foundation, one of several advocacy groups.
"It would have been good for people to recognize that these were computers. And as such, they were subject to all the glitches and errors and vulnerabilities,"
To date, there has been no verified tampering with an electronic voting system during an election. But the controversy has had an effect.
Two years ago, California's then-secretary of state, Democrat Kevin Shelley, announced that electronic voting machines would be required to produce a paper record of each vote. Today, more than half the states require such records, according to Verified Voting.
Officials have also begun putting new demands on manufacturers to prove that their systems cannot be compromised.
Last month, Shelley's successor, Republican Bruce McPherson, ordered more testing on a popular Diebold machine used by several of California's largest counties.
In Leon County, Fla., home to the state capital of Tallahassee, elections supervisor Ion Sancho announced in mid-December he was scrapping a Diebold system after he said computer experts had successfully hacked into it.
Even Georgia, considered a model of successful reform, is seeing a spirited debate over the security of its Diebold machines.
Diebold has fiercely defended its systems. "Whenever you change technology, there will always be select individuals who will be resistant," said Mark Radke, a Diebold marketing director. "When ATMs were introduced, people were saying, 'I don't want to get my money out of that box.' Now, hardly anyone walks into a bank."
But the new requirements have added to the disarray.
California's Orange County is retrofitting its voting machines with printers, a task that Neal Kelley, acting registrar of voters, said will require the county to cut open thousands of machines. Voters there will use paper ballots for an April special election to fill a state Senate seat.
Other California counties have pulled electronic systems out of service while the state reevaluates whether the machines are vulnerable to hacking.
That has jeopardized plans by several counties to use the machines in the state's June 6 primary election.
"The frustration level is very, very high," said Elaine Ginnold, acting registrar of voters in Alameda County, whose plans to purchase a new voting system have been thrown into disarray.
Many California counties, including Los Angeles, are in open revolt against the secretary of state's office, which they charge is arbitrarily setting and resetting standards to appease a few outspoken activists.
"This all started with paranoia over technology, even though we trust it in our banking and we trust it to fly airplanes," said Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder Conny McCormack, one of the nation's leading local elections officials. "This is about change management, and people are not managing."
Los Angeles County uses some Diebold touch-screen machines for early voting but decided three years ago to defer spending $100 million on a new electronic system until the technology became more reliable and regulations stabilized. The county turned to the InkaVote system -- paper ballots marked with an ink stamp and then optically scanned -- to replace the punch cards used since the late 1960s.
Caren Daniels-Meade, chief of elections in the secretary of state's office, acknowledged that the last several years have been trying. But she said the state has to ensure that voting systems are as secure as possible.
"It's frustrating for us too," Daniels-Meade said, noting that the lack of guidance from the federal government has contributed to the confusion.
Daniels-Meade said she hoped that 2006 would bring more stability.
But McCormack, though sanguine about the long term, said no one should expect the debate to quiet down soon.
"Possibly by 2010," she predicted, "we will be through this decade of turmoil."
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Since 2000, election officials nationwide have labored to impose new regulations on electronic voting even as the systems have become more popular.
Dec. 12: Ruling on Bush vs. Gore, a divided U.S. Supreme Court stops six weeks of ballot counting in Florida and effectively hands victory in the presidential election to George W. Bush.
Sept. 18: Then-California Secretary of State Bill Jones orders California counties to scrap punch-card systems by 2006.
Feb. 13: A federal judge in California rules the state must replace punch-card voting systems by the 2004 presidential election.
March 5: California voters approve Proposition 41, a $200-million bond measure to help counties modernize voting systems.
Oct. 29: Bush signs the Help America Vote Act, which promises nearly $4 billion to states to help them modernize voting systems.
Nov. 21: California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley announces that by 2006 all electronic voting machines must produce a paper record for voters
Nov. 2: In the presidential election, an estimated 29% of voters have access to electronic voting machines, up from 13% in 2000.
Source: Times reporting and Election Data Services
Los Angeles Times