Four years after an overhaul of American voting systems, the Nov. 7 midterm elections will provide the next test to see if remaining kinks recorded during the 2004 presidential elections have been addressed.
flaws in the system discovered during the 2000 presidential election
and targeted by Congress in the Help America Vote Act in 2002
have reportedly been fixed, with a majority of states introducing
their own election laws and registration databases, and electronic
voting machines replacing the old-style lever, punch card and
paper ballot machines that failed in 2000.
The 2004 presidential election was the system's first major test under the act but after election night, voters across the United States reported problems with the electronic machines.
North Carolina's newly installed electronic voting machines failed to record 4,500 votes, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that wants more transparency in electronic voting.
In Ohio, an electronic voting machine recorded 3,893 votes for President Bush in a precinct with only 800 voters, according to The New York Times.
Other states reported similar inconsistencies with the new machines that are designed to ensure accuracy but continue to expose flaws.
Of the more than 3,000 counties in the United States, at least a third switched from mechanical to electronic voting machines, according to Election Data Services, a consulting firm specializing in elections.
However, Election Data Services reported that 22.5 million voters will still be using punch cards or lever machines in the midterm election.
About 69 million voters will use optical scan ballots -- those filled out by the voter and read by a computerized device -- and 66.6 million will use electronic equipment of the touch-screen variety, the organization said.
In Lafayette Parish, for example, Louisiana officials have replaced the old-fashioned Print-O-Matic voting machines they had used for more than 50 years with the newer Sequoia AVC electronic booths.
According to parish Clerk of Court Louis Perret, the machines, mandated by Congress as part of the Help America Vote Act and issued by the state, are working well.
"We tested them on Saturday night (for a local election)," Perret said. "Unfortunately only 7 percent of the vote turned out, but they worked quite well with very minor hiccups, which was to be expected. I personally drove the polls. We had 90-year-old voters saying how easy it was to use. We had no complaints."
One of the few glitches, according to Perret, occurred because of human, rather than machine, error.
Like Lafayette, communities around the country are using part of the $3.8 billion in federal funds appropriated by Congress as part of its voting system overhaul to purchase the new voting equipment.
But, despite not having to foot the bill for the upgrades, not everyone is happy with the performance of the computerized machines.
Complaints also stem from the lack of voter verification after completing a ballot. Electronic machines leave no paper trail and the only record is stored on the machine making it vulnerable to software glitches and possible fraud.
A study released in June by the Brennan Center Task Force on Voting System Security, part of New York University's law school, found in a survey of election officials across the country that all three of the commonly used electronic voting can be hacked into. The group suggested random audits and voter-verified paper records could help increase their reliability.
An amendment to the Help America Vote Act was introduced in the House in early 2005 that would require a permanent paper record to accompany all electronic ballots. Twenty-six states have plans to require a paper trail and some precincts are acting before a federal or state law passes.
In Sarasota County, Florida, the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections in July collected enough signatures to place a referendum on the November ballot requiring a voter-verified paper trail for all the county's computerized voting machines, according to the state's Herald Tribune.
Computer security expert and author Bruce Schneier believes voter verifiable paper audit trails -- paper ballots printed out by the machines -- are the one way to ensure accuracy in electronic voting.
"One, it allows the voter to confirm that his vote was recorded in the manner he intended. And two, it provides the mechanism for a re-count if there are problems with the machine," Schneier wrote recently on his security blog.
Schneier also advocates opening the software used in the machines to public scrutiny. This, he says, would allow public analysis and therefore the widespread identification of bugs in the system.
"The very same software that makes the touch-screen voting systems so friendly also makes them inaccurate," Schneier wrote.
"Bugs in software are commonplace, as any computer user knows. Computer programs regularly malfunction, sometimes in surprising and subtle ways. This is true for all software, including software in computerized voting machines."
In addition to requiring states to upgrade their physical voting machinery, election reform laws also have called for an overhaul of voter registries in most states.
Voters, who may not appear on voter registries, must be allowed
to cast "provisional" ballots, which serve as a record of their
vote until their status can be determined. As of the Jan. 1, 2006
deadline set by lawmakers for the upgrades to take place, 13 states
had failed to comply, U.S. News & World Report said in a July
Officials in Lafayette Parish are working to help people adjust to the machines and hopefully as Election Day nears, voter fears of the new equipment will subside.
"We've heard everything from, 'I have a pacemaker so I can't be near that voting machine,' to 'if you have a PDA you can change the outcome of the vote just by entering the room,'" Perret said.