Quad City Times
- News: Iowa / Illinois
Only oldest voting machines to be replaced
May 24, 2004
By Associated Press
DES MOINES (AP) -- Four years after the nation agonized over a historically close presidential election and Congress promised reform, many precincts in Iowa still will be using the same equipment to tabulate votes in the November election.
That's because local election officials are still waiting for the federal government to decide which voting machines are acceptable to buy.
After the disputed 2000 election, Congress provided states money to buy new machines but never authorized money for federal elections officials to determine what machines are acceptable to ensure that all votes are counted accurately.
That means the Help America Vote Act will fail to meet its original goal of improving the equipment by the 2004 presidential election.
"That's a disgraceful situation and the blame sits firmly with Congress," said Doug Jones, chairman of the Iowa Board of Examiners for Voting Machines and a member of the state's Election Reform Task Force.
As a result, state and local election officials are left to cope again this year with old equipment and hope for new machines and a better shot at improved elections in 2006.
Within a few weeks Iowa will have about $29 million to spend along with the $765,000 in matching funds the Legislature set aside, said Secretary of State Chet Culver.
Culver will use some of the federal money to replace old mechanical lever-type machines in Crawford, Delaware, Sioux, Palo Alto, Ida, and Keokuk counties before November.
Van Buren County, the only county remaining in the state where voters mark an "x" in a box next to a candidate's name on a paper ballot, will also get machines.
Culver said he doesn't want to wait to replace Iowa's oldest machines because the margins of error in those machines could make the difference in a very close presidential election this November.
Overall, Culver has a plan that allocates $15.9 million to counties for new voting systems in the state's 1,890 precincts. The money can be used for hardware, software, poll worker training and voter education.
Counties are expected to pitch in about $2,600 per precinct for the upgrades, Culver said.
Meanwhile, the federal government is not expected to have a list of certified voting systems until the end of this year and most voters will likely not see new machines until 2006, Culver said.
Jones said other states have found it takes months to replace old machines with new.
"The timeline for buying new voting machines is a long one," he said. "If you don't commit to a particular vendor and begin contract negotiations with them a year in advance of a general election, you're setting yourself up for some embarrassing problems."
He said instances in Florida and California have demonstrated that lack of testing of new machines and training for election officials leads to disaster.
Culver said he's troubled by testing on some electronic machines in which computer hackers were successful in breaking into system and changing votes.
"Let's proceed cautiously. Let's not pretend we know what we need whether it's definitely the touch-screen or definitely a paper trail. Let's figure it out," he said.