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1 vote system? Don't count on it

Being in Lenawee County, Michigan, on Election Day is like visiting a museum of voting machines.

Residents in the small, rural county vote on five systems. Voters push levers, fill in circles, and press touch pads. The county clerk, Lenawee County's top election officer, scrambles to keep up.

“You can't be consistent,” county Clerk LouAnn Bluntschly said. “It's hard to figure out how many ballots you need. And you have five different kinds of ballots to proof.''

This is not new, and it's not unique to Lenawee County.

Voters all over the country cast their ballots on a wide array of machines, from the archaic to the Internet. Because the votes were always tabulated one way or another and few complained, not many citizens noticed.

Then this close and controversial presidential election made people realize just how precious - and precarious - their votes can be. Chads - the pieces that fall out of the holes in punch cards - and lever machines became household terms.

Lucas County uses lever machines from the 1950s and '60s that aren't even being made anymore. Only one other county in Ohio - Hardin County - still uses that system. The first official use of the lever machine in the country was back in 1892.

Some parts of Michigan use the butterfly ballots criticized in Florida.

The nation was appalled to learn that thousands of votes in Florida were thrown out because of irregularities, including inadvertent voting for two candidates. People who run elections and those who have studied them were not.

“It should be a wakeup call,'' said Ted Arrington, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who studies election systems. “People who haven't been involved in the system think there's an absolute number of people who voted for a candidate. Well every time you count you're going to get a different number.”

Mr. Arrington and others who study election technology say there are better ways to cast ballots, electronic systems that won't let you vote for two candidates like punch cards and that count faster than lever machines.

So why, in an age where people can transfer money in the blink of an eye and order everything from plane tickets to flowers online, are we still voting with clanking old levers and paper ballots?

Money, experts say.

“County commissioners are cheap, and they don't want to spend the money. It's really that simple. There are good systems on the market,'' Mr. Arrington said.

Federal lawmakers are reluctant to suggest mandating a uniform voting system, which they say would take away the power of the states to run elections. Experts say it would require a constitutional amendment and a whole lot of money, because changing the election systems of a single county could cost millions.

But some election leaders, including Michigan Secretary of State Candice Miller, have urged legislators to pass laws establishing one voting system and one ballot in their states. U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) plans to propose establishment of a federal commission to find the best voting systems.

“I don't want to take over the state's responsibility for elections. We are a republic and we should remain one,” Miss Kaptur said.

But they might also have to find a way to pay for it. Overhauling outdated election machines might not be practical for cash-strapped counties and townships. In Lucas County alone it would cost more than $8 million.

“It would have to be shared cost: local state, and possibly a federal share,” Miss Kaptur said.

In Michigan, townships are responsible for buying and maintaining their election machines. Some of them have budgets as small as $130,000. Paying for new systems would be impractical and maybe impossible.

Still, counties that purged the old lever or punch card systems and spent the money on new machines have not regretted it.

This was the last punch card election for Sandusky County. The company that provided the software for the machines is going out of business, so election officials thought it was time to get rid of a system they never liked.

“We examined every card before it went through the machine, so we didn't have the problems you're seeing,” election director Barb Tuckerman said. “But you realize when you do that how many people make mistakes.”

The new system, which cost $254,000, has voters filling in circles, much like on standardized tests. The cards are fed through machines.

In the event of a hand count, it is easier to figure out the voter's intent on paper ballots, Ms. Tuckerman said. The new system also leaves voters feeling more confident ballots were counted.

Nancy Bell, election director in Ross County in southern Ohio, was surprised to learn that Lucas County still uses lever machines, a system that county abandoned in 1996.

Ross County officials were finding it too hard to recount votes. The machines were 1,800 pounds apiece and had to be hauled by a truck that was breaking down. Replacement parts weren't even being made.

“It was just becoming too difficult, with all the state rules, to continue using them,” Ms. Bell said.

This year, Ross County election officials programmed a ballot in the election machines, and the results are counted automatically. An election crew used to working until 2:30 a.m. was gone five hours earlier.

The cost for the 161 machines will offset itself eventually, Ms. Bell said, in less maintenance and the fact that paper ballots don't need to be printed. Ballots cost Ross County, with 39,400 registered voters, $40,000 per year.

New Hampshire was one of the only states to abandon the punch card system altogether in 1986. Because it's a small state, many races were decided by only a few votes. Secretary of State Bill Gardner quickly learned that the punch card machines could not be counted on in a recount.

“We had the experience of having conducted those recounts and having the decision as to who won come down to what amount of light was coming from the chads,” he said. “We never felt comfortable with those results.”

So in 1986, the state started denying local bodies the use of punch cards. Voters now fill in circles or arrows next to candidates' names, and optical scanners read the results.

“Every state has a different experience,” Mr. Gardner said. “If you have a lot of recounts, at least from what I've seen, that particular [voting device] didn't leave a good feeling here.”

In Ohio, a bipartisan board of voting machine examiners looks at and approves voting systems. Counties choose from those machines.

There are three reasons Ohio doesn't have a uniform voting system, according to James Lee, a spokesman for the Ohio secretary of state.

Ohio law allows each county to choose its system. The counties are responsible for paying for the machines. And county election officials know what works best for their voters, Mr. James said.

He said it's not common for the state board to review systems to see whether they should be taken off the approved list.

Nearly all Ohio counties and about 20 per cent of Michigan precincts used punch card machines Nov. 7. Only a handful of places in Ohio used electronic, touch-screen voting.

Ohio State University political science professor Herb Asher has studied punch card systems. In 1978, he found that 5 per cent of Ohioans' votes for governor were invalidated because more than one vote was on the card. And that didn't include the number of votes thrown out because of the now-famous partially punched chad.

“You can't really do that on an electronic system,” Mr. Asher said. “I think a lot of people were shocked at the primitive voting methods we used.”

Compounding the voting dilemma is the fact that many people prefer and trust the old-fashioned systems. Pushing a lever or filling in a paper ballot leaves some voters feeling more secure than touching a computer screen.

“Some people call the [lever] systems archaic, but we've never had problems with them. They're still the most tried and true system of voting,” Hillsdale County Clerk Tom Mohr said. “With electronic voting you don't have a paper backup when you need to do a recount. All you can do is look at the numbers on the machine again.”

There has been some talk about better educating voters about the existing systems and urging them to ask for new ballots if they make mistakes.

But Mr. Arrington said it's impossible to eliminate voter error.

“People are not going to get another ballot when they've waited in line for two hours and have two hours of line behind them,” he said.

Oregon's system of mail-in voting has been hailed by many as a successful way to improve voter participation. But some experts pointed out that it's not the most efficient way of voting.

“They're still counting votes,” Mr. Asher said.

But the Oregon system has improved voter participation significantly. The key is the ease with which voters can cast their ballots, by either dropping them in the mail or at drop-off sites. The worries about fraud and tampering have not materialized, and supporters of mail-in voting counter that people can just as easily misrepresent themselves when they show up at the polls.

Ms. Miller, the secretary of state in Michigan, suggested that a happy medium might be to give absentee ballots to everybody who wants them, not just people who will be out of town or meet certain requirements. That way people who do not want to drive to the polls Election Day can vote ahead of time.

Ms. Miller also said she would like to see the state Legislature make Election Day a state holiday so people would have time to vote.

Some states, including California, have tested Internet voting. The verdict is still out.

The first online election was held by Arizona Democrats during the March primary. Polls still offered traditional voting, and absentee votes were still used.

But voters could log on in the days before the election, from their home or office, and cast their votes. About half of the Democrats who voted used the Internet.

Mark Fleisher, chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party, said the goal was to bring attention to the primary and attract younger voters.

“I think there is a great divide between older and younger voters. The older voters are already coming out,” he said. “I think it should be an additional resource. We should still have the polling places.”

Identification codes and what Mr. Fleisher called a hacker-proof system were put in place to safeguard against fraud.

Still, experts and some election leaders say the country isn't ready for online voting.

Some say there aren't enough people with computer access, and older voters might be intimidated. But by far the biggest worry is fraud and tampering.

“I think it's something we'll eventually do, but we don't have security measures in place yet to allow it,” Mr. Arrington of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte said.

Ms. Miller, the top election official in Michigan, agreed.

“We're nowhere near ready for that,” she said.

Mr. Fleisher isn't so sure that's true.

“I don't think this county is ready for paper ballots, as evidenced on Nov. 7,” he said.

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