By Jim Drinkard, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — More than 30 million Americans will be looking at new and unfamiliar voting machines when they cast their ballots this year, perhaps the most rapid changeover of voting equipment in history. With that change comes an increased risk of errors and confusion, election officials say.
Barbara Sanders of the League of Women Voters selects a candidate last October during a test of an electronic voting machine in Columbia, Md.
Chris Gardner, AP
"When you look at disaster stories, it is usually that first time using a new piece of equipment that something is going to fall apart," says Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, which maintains data on voting systems across the country.
Brace's latest update, to be released today, shows that at least 647 of the nation's 3,114 counties will be using new voting machines this year, more than at any time since records began in 1980 and probably ever, he said. Those jurisdictions are home to 30.6 million registered voters, or almost a fifth of the national total.
HOW VOTES ARE CAST
Voting equipment in use since 2000, and the percentage of registered voters who use each:
Type of equipment 2000 2006
Punch card 16% 3%
Lever 20% 10%
Paper ballots 1% less than 1%
Optical scan 37% 41%
Electronic 17% 39%
Mixed 9% 7%
Source: Election Data Services
Voters used to manual machines with levers or punch-card devices could instead be seeing touch screens or optical scanners. "Election administrators have never been through (this) amount of change," says Doug Lewis, director of the Election Center, which helps train election officials. "It would be an absolute miracle if we don't have hiccups."
The rapid change is propelled by the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which mandated upgrades in voting equipment and processes. About one-third of states missed deadlines for upgrading equipment or making it fully accessible to the disabled, says Doug Chapin, president of Electionline.org, a non-profit group that studies voting.
Progress has been made toward eliminating antiquated voting equipment, Brace's data show. Punch cards, which introduced the term "hanging chad" into the nation's lexicon after Florida's troubles in the 2000 presidential election, are being used by one-fifth as many voters as in 2000. The use of lever machines has been cut in half; most are in New York.
Linda Lamone, administrator of the Maryland Board of Elections and president of the National Association of State Election Directors, says widespread worries about glitches include:
• Is there enough time to educate voters and poll workers, many of them older and not proficient with computers, before Election Day?
• Will there be adequate tech support from voting-machine manufacturers?
• How will the 25 states that require a paper backup for their computerized machines handle that — and which record will be the official one for any recount?
"Election officials are worried," Brace says. "A lot of them are saying, 'Why didn't I retire last year?' "
© Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.