E-voting rollout is slow going

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 set aside nearly $4 billion to help states replace obsolete voting technology and modernize their voter registration systems, but problems in determining the best way to meet these goals have slowed the efforts greatly.

The government has been slow to establish the Election Administration Commission required in the law to coordinate reforms. And the debate continues over how to ensure the security of new voting systems, such as by requiring paper confirmation of votes.

States have received only about half of the $3.86 billion in federal grant money provided by the legislation to buy new voting systems and build statewide voter registration systems, said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a Washington think tank studying election reform.

HAVA's impact on the election next month will be light at best, several observers said.

Most of the change so far has involved election administration procedures and not major deployments of new voting machines or voter registration systems, said Meg McLaughlin, president of Accenture Ltd.'s eDemocracy Services.

'The big technology projects have been delayed,' she said. Government officials agreed. Speaking for his state, Utah CIO Val Oveson said, 'This election will be conducted exactly the way the 2000 election was conducted.'

The election market's slow development is benefiting state and local governments, said Matt Miszewski, Wisconsin's CIO. 'The good thing for those of us who waited is that the systems are now less expensive,' he said.

More than a half dozen states are either seeking or evaluating proposals for statewide voter registration systems, according to Federal Sources Inc. of McLean, Va., a market research firm.

Among states evaluating proposals are Kansas, Maryland, New Hampshire, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. Iowa and New Jersey are awaiting responses to their solicitations.

Through HAVA, the federal government offers to buy out punch card and lever machines from counties across the nation, a move intended to prompt a conversion to e-voting systems.

Direct recording electronic devices offer several advantages over paper ballots, Chapin said. Electronic voting machines prevent problems of voters punching too many holes on a punchcard, are easier for disabled voters to use and can more easily provide multilingual ballots, he said.

Since the 2000 presidential election, e-voting has gone from pilot stage to full-scale implementation in one-fifth of the nation's 3,066 counties, according to election management services firm Election Data Services Inc. of Washington.

The firm estimates that 50 million registered voters will use e-voting systems to cast ballots in the upcoming presidential election.

But some states are deliberately putting off buying new equipment to replace old systems until they see how well new electronic voting machines perform in the 2004 presidential election, Chapin said.

'Because they saw the controversy that cropped up in the early adopter states, some states have decided to go slow or postpone indefinitely new technology purchases. They would rather take longer to make what they believe is a good decision than make a questionable one sooner,' Chapin said.

Playing leading roles in the e-voting drama in the upcoming election are Delaware, Georgia and Nevada. These three states have converted all of their counties to e-voting.

Also worth watching are large states such as California, Florida and Texas, which have converted a significant number of their counties to e-voting.

The test facing these states in the November election is whether their new systems record votes the way they are supposed to or crash and must be taken offline, analysts said.

'The 2004 presidential election is really going to be the election to increasingly get all of the bugs out of e-voting solutions,' Meta's Santenello said. 'It's going to be a test of whether they've figured out how to provide the perception of a secure solution.'

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