A Patchwork Of Voting Methods
By LARRY LIPMAN / Cox Washington
WASHINGTON -- How Americans vote depends on where they live.
In Presidio, Texas, voters in the southwest portion of the state still use paper ballots to mark their choice for president.
In Syracuse, New York -- and virtually the entire state -- voters use machines with levers, popular throughout much of the 20th Century, to cast their ballots.
In Farmington, New Mexico, voters register their choices by pushing buttons that light up indicating which candidate they've chosen. At the end, they punch a green button which records the votes electronically.
Virtually the entire state of Illinois uses punch cards slipped into ballot forms to record votes. In Oklahoma, almost all voters fill in circles or boxes on forms that are scanned by an optical reader. In a handful of counties, voters punch ballots that have the names of the candidates printed on them These are known as data votes.
America is a patchwork of voting methods, some dating back to the 19th Century, others part of the cyber-generation.
Optical scanners are used in 39 percent of the counties in the United States, but more Americans, 31 percent, vote using punch cards than any other method, according to 1998 information compiled by Election Data Services, a consulting firm that specializes in elections.
Punch cards are so prevalent because "they're easier to use in large counties where usually you have a lot of people coming to the polling places and you need to have a lot of booths in all the polling places," said Kim Brace, president of Election Data Services.
Punch cards also are popular in large counties because they are relatively inexpensive. A punch card system typically costs $150 to $200 per unit. By comparison, electronic systems and optical scanners range between $4,000 and $5,000 each.
The old voting machines with levers are still used in more than 400 counties, but they are bulky, difficult to store and are no longer manufactured.
All election methods are subject to error -- some mechanical, some human, Brace said.
Bill Kimberling, FEC deputy director of election administration, said the commission does not know of any study that has examined the error rates in different voting methods.
The oldest form of voting used in the United States is the paper ballot on which voters make a mark beside the name of their chosen candidate. Also known as the "Australian Ballot," the system has been used in America since the 1880s. Prior to that, voters used ballots handed out by the parties to signify their choice, Kimberling said.
But hand counting paper ballots is slow and rife with possibilities for mistakes or fraud.
Punch cards are likely to have the types of errors found in Palm Beach County: multiple punches for one office or holes that are only partially pushed through, making it difficult for them to be properly read by machines.
Some jurisdictions, such as Chicago, team the punch system with a punch reader which immediately reads the ballot to give the voter the option of deciding whether it accurately reflected his or her vote. But such readers are expensive, around $4,000, and are not used in most precincts, Brace said.
New Hampshire and Massachusetts ban the use of punch cards in elections.
The New Hampshire ban grew out of a 1986 decision by Secretary of State William M. Gardner to reject the town of Hanover's request to use a punch card system because of their unreliability. Gardner then convinced the state Ballot Law Commission to ban punch cards statewide.
Massachusetts banned punch cards after the 1996 Democratic primary election in which punch cards indicated that Rep. William Delahunt had been defeated by 266 votes. Delahunt sued and court recounts determined he had won by 108 votes.
A year later, William F. Galvin, secretary of the commonwealth, revoked the certification for any punch card balloting in Massachusetts effective with the 1998 elections.
Since then, about three-fourths of Massachusetts precincts have switched to an optical scan system.
The old lever machines, in addition to being bulky, work much like a car's odometer. They record votes as a running total. But the old machinery is wearing out and the gears that move the counters may break at any time. The machines also do not produce individual ballots that can be recounted, Brace said.
Electronic systems also are subject to failure. They also count votes as a running tally and do not produce an actual ballot that can be recounted or compared to the tally given by the machine.
Rebecca Mercuri, president of Notable Software Inc. who has studied electronic voting for a decade, said such systems can have serious flaws including errors in hardware and software that can give inaccurate results.
Optical scanning systems grew in popularity during the past decade, particularly in smaller counties. They work much like a paper ballot but can be more quickly _ and presumably accurately _ counted than ballots counted by hand. But because ballots are scanned by a machine, they must be printed with extreme precision. Circles or boxes printed one-32nd of an inch off might not be properly read, Brace said.
Mercuri noted that when circles that are not precisely filled in they may not be accurately counted by optical scanners.
In 1990, the Federal Election Commission set voluntary standards for election machines. Since then, two-thirds of the states have adopted the standards.
Some 27 companies produce machines that have met the FEC standards as tested by two independent laboratories under the auspices of the National Association of State Election Directors.
Following this election, the association is likely to push for new standards to include changes made to voting systems since the 1980s, said Ann McGeehan, director of the Texas Division of Elections and president-elect of the association.
McGeehan sees the nation moving in the direction of electronic touch screen systems because they may be more cost-effective over a long-term.
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