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Voting, Vote Counting Will See Changes For 2008 Elections

By Ian Urbina
and Christopher Drew
THE NEW YORK TIMES

By the 2008 presidential election, voters around the country are likely to see sweeping changes in how they cast their ballots and how those ballots are counted, including an end to the use of most electronic voting machines without a paper trail, federal voting officials and legislators say.

New federal guidelines, along with legislation given a strong chance to pass in Congress next year, will probably combine to make paperless voting machines obsolete, the officials say. States and counties that bought the machines will have to modify them to hook them up to printers, at federal expense, while others are planning to scrap the machines and buy new ones.

In addition, the various forms of vote-counting software used around the country — most of which are protectively encoded by their manufacturers for reasons of trade secrecy — will for the first time be inspected by federal authorities, and the code could be made public. There will also be greater federal oversight on how new machines are tested before they arrive at polling stations.

“In the next two years, I think we’ll see the kinds of sweeping changes that people expected to see right after the 2000 election,” said Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, a nonpartisan election group. “The difference now is that we have moved from politics down to policies.”

Motivated in part by voting problems during the midterm elections last month, the changes are the result of a growing skepticism among local and state election officials, federal legislators, and the scientific community about the reliability and security of the paperless touch-screen machines used by about 30 percent of American voters.

Many of these machines were bought in a rush to overhaul the voting system after the disputed presidential election in 2000 and the issue of hanging chads. But concerns have been growing that in a close election the paperless machines give election workers no legitimate method to conduct a recount or to check for malfunctions or fraud.

Several counties around the country are already considering scrapping their voting systems after problems this year, and last week federal technology experts concluded for the first time that paperless touch-screen machines could not be secured from possible tampering.

After having stalled for over two years, federal legislation requiring a shift to paper trails and other safeguards, proposed by Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., has a better chance of passage next session, several members of Congress and election officials say.

They say that fixing the voting system is viewed as a core issue by the new Democratic leaders, and the bill already has the bipartisan support of more than a majority of the current House. Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., who will be the new chairwoman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, said she plans to introduce a similar bill in January.

But it is also clear that the changes will not come without a struggle. State and local election officials are still reeling from the last major overhaul of the country’s voting system, initiated by the Help America Vote Act in 2002, and some say that the $150 million in federal aid proposed by Holt would not be enough to pay for the changes.