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Not ready for November

Nobody studies election processes more closely than Ted Selker at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, and has personally sat in some 250 polling places nationwide watching elections.

Selker estimates that roughly six million intended votes were not counted in the 2000 presidential election ó for reasons ranging from registration issues to those hanging chads. And with less than four months left until the 2004 election, Selker has come forward with a Voting Technology Project report on what must be done to prevent similar problems this time around.

Titled "Immediate Steps To Avoid Lost Votes in the 2004 Presidential Election: Recommendations for the Election Assistance Commission," the report "points out that there were a lot of problems in 2000 that could be gotten rid of with little money," Selker says. It recommends that the federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC) focus on four areas before November:

Data reporting. As things stand, no solid national repository exists for the collection of statistics on such basic things as how many ballots were cast in elections, and what machines resulted in what percentage of lost votes.

Common ballot problems. One major cause of invalidated optical-scan ballots in Florida four years ago was poor phrasing next to the write-in candidate line, Selker says. The ballots simply said, "Write in" ó rather than "Someone else (write name)" ó prompting many to write Gore or Bush on the line even though they had also marked the candidateís box. That and just a few other common problems could be easily fixed and save thousands of votes.

Provisional voting. Federal law now requires that anybody who wants to vote, but whose registration is contested, must be allowed to cast a "provisional ballot," to become valid later if registration is verified. Most states need guidance on how to implement this, Selker says.

Complaint and monitoring procedures. States need help establishing these now, while they have time, Selker says.

Will any of this happen by November? Even Selker admits itís unlikely in light of the tepid support for voting reform coming from both the president and Congress. In the wake of the 2000 election debacle, for instance, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, which required the creation of a federal Election Assistance Commission by February 2003. But EAC commissioners were not appointed until 10 months later, and the first EAC meeting didnít take place until January 2004. So itís up to voters themselves, Selker says, to make sure their votes are counted. Toward that end, citizens should acquaint themselves with what they may face at the polls ó and not rely on local poll workers for instruction on how to work the machines or prepare a provisional ballot. The EACís Web site ó www.eac.gov ó does have some helpful state-by-state information. Selkerís Voting Technology Project report, meanwhile, can be read at www.vote.caltech.edu/Reports/EAC.pdf.

Issue Date: July 23 - 29, 2004
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