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Election reformers eye next vote

Groups study e-voting, exit polls, other issues

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After an election that, relatively speaking, lacked major voting problems, election reform activists have started to refine their focus.

On the surface, voting went well and lacked the extended recounts and lawsuits of 2000, despite widely reported fears to the contrary from pollsters, ballot watchers and politicians. Public reaction was generally favorable about the conduct of the election, even among those who did not like the outcome, in a year when turnout nationally and on a state level was as high as expected.

There were problems, however, but none of them affected the outcome of major races. Locally, a programming error in Utah County caused approximately 33,000 straight party votes to be ignored, while on a national scale there were reports of electronic voting machines that lost ballots in North Carolina, crashed voting machines in Louisiana and miscounted ballots in Ohio.

It's those problems, and other possible incongruities in the vote counting, that have driven Kathy Dopp, a Park City-based voting activist, to undertake a study of potential problem areas around the country. Involved since early last year with a group fighting to stop the state from rushing the installation of new voting equipment, she now plans to conduct a statistical study of potential problem areas, especially in those places — such as many counties in Florida and Ohio — where voters cast their ballots on electronic machines.

"There are huge amounts of problems with e-voting machines," Dopp said. "There are more problems than in 2000, but it didn't happen in a way which triggered a stalemate in the presidential election."

Along with electronic machines, she is also studying those areas where the exit polls and the actual results were very different.

"Anybody who studies statistics and math and understands the theory of exit polls, they understand that the probability of the exit polls being wrong 10 out of 11 times is practically nil," she said.

Dopp actually started a mini-firestorm of her own in the days following the election, when she posted a raw analysis of results from Florida counties that compared the actual vote totals with the number of voters registered with a party and the expected results.

While she posted a disclaimer that "no conclusion to the actual causes of the patterns" can be taken from the numbers, her study spread quickly through political blogs, eventually drawing the attention of national media.

Because of those numbers, Dopp decided to tackle a much more conclusive study, aided by math and statistic experts. Her intentions include "systematically pinpointing precincts where we think there are errors" and to have a system which can do a similar analysis in days, or even hours, after the election.

Like Dopp, other groups involved before the election with preventing problems similar to 2000 are now focusing their attention on finding methods to catch voting problems in time to fix them. Along with electronic voting machines, those efforts will also include making sure all eligible provisional ballots are counted, making sure that long lines or inadequate access to polling places do not stop a person from voting, and that voter registrations are processed.

Kay Maxwell, president of the League of Women Voters of the United States, said in a statement released shortly after the election that the group is "deeply concerned about voting irregularities" in this year's election and urged election officials to "fully investigate" the problems. They also said that in coming months, they will examine a variety of election issues.

"It is important to ensure that every properly cast ballot is counted and to make improvements for future elections," Maxwell said. "Attention must be given to inadequate polling place procedures, problematic voting machines, voter registration system failures, casting and counting provisional ballots, and absentee ballot procedures. This was far from a perfect election."

Those issues will also remain a top priority for state election officials, especially as they pertain to the integrity of elections. State Elections Director Amy Naccarato said that even as the state moves closer to purchasing electronic machines, the issues of making sure every vote counts is paramount, even if a smooth election makes them fall out of the public spotlight.

"The issues about security and accuracy are still going to be there," Naccarato said. "But because things went pretty well this year, there will be more confidence in the new machines."

The state vastly improved access for disabled voters this year, Naccarato said, and judges were much better prepared to handle new voting laws, especially regarding provisional ballots. Overall, the system — even with some new laws — worked quite well.

"We didn't get any calls from people who were not allowed to vote, so the judges and the voters are understanding (provisional ballots)," she said. "I think they were a success, and people used them pretty widely."

Since the 2000 election, major reform steps have been taken around the country to improve voting access and the counting of ballots with the Help America Vote Act. The most prominent feature, as well as the most controversial, is the elimination of punch card ballots in favor of electronic voting machines.

In Utah, the new machines could be in place by next year's municipal elections, and they must be installed by the 2006 general election. Around the country, however, almost 30 percent of voters this year cast ballots on electronic machines, most of which did not supply a paper trail of the ballots, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Election Verification Project.

Originally, the state had planned to demonstrate its new machines Dec. 10, but that was delayed because "with the bulk of the proposals," more time is needed, Naccarato said. She expected that a new date would be announced by early December, and that it would most likely be early next year.

E-mail: jloftin@desnews.com