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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 November, 2004, 12:43 GMT
The machinery of an anxious democracy
By Clare Murphy
BBC News Online

These presidential elections are truly historic.

A touch-screen voting machine
It's simple, but not wholly trusted

For the first time, representatives from the OSCE - the European body which has traditionally monitored elections in fledgling democracies - are looking on as Americans elect their president.

There have certainly been objections to the involvement of foreign monitors in the domestic affairs of a country which sees itself as a beacon of democracy.

But the Florida fiasco of 2000 with its hanging chads and voter purges has shaken confidence in the sanctity of the system, producing in the words of one observer, a climate of "unease, distrust and scepticism".

New technology brought in to replace the old - polls suggest - is as mistrusted as that which it has replaced, and anxiety abounds in the media over every conceivable aspect of the vote.

In the weeks leading up to the poll, those suffering from Alzheimer's disease were seized upon as a cause for concern - with fears over who might be filling in ballot forms for those Americans who are mentally incapacitated.

"Look - it's a long election campaign and there are pages to fill. But we can't just say don't worry about it," says Rob Ritchie of the Center for Voting and Democracy.

"There are some real problems with both the new and the old systems - problems which are made worse by the fact that so much is decided at a local level."

Out with the old

Decentralised it may be, but there has been federal involvement in the years since the 2000 poll - both in terms of money to update equipment and fresh legislation on casting ballots.

Lever voting
How: Pull the lever below your preferred candidate's name
Pros: Little room for confusion
Cons: No paper trail

The Help America Vote Act (Hava), passed in October 2002, mandated all states to introduce provisional ballots as a means of avoiding what happened in Florida during the 2000 poll, when thousands of voters incorrectly listed as criminals were alleged to have been removed from voter rolls and turned away.

Under the new system, everyone who believes they are entitled to vote - regardless of whether their name features on a roll or not - may cast a ballot. The validity of their vote will be decided later - although how this will be decided has also been a subject of some speculation.

Punch-card
How: Punch out the chad next to your preferred candidate's name
Pros: Paper trail
Cons: Hanging chads

In addition, the act provided $3.8bn of federal funds to help states replace old-fashioned lever voting as well as the kind of punch-card machines which were at the centre of the storm in Florida.

Tens of thousands of ballot papers in the state were discarded by the automatic counters because they were not properly punched through. The hanging chad - the tiny piece of card still clinging to the ballot paper - came to symbolise the entire presidential poll.

Optical scan
How: Blacken the oval next to your preferred candidate's name - it is then read by a computer
Pros: Easy to use and paper trail
Cons: Poorly marked papers cannot always be read

To stop small bits of paper dominating this year's poll, expensive electronic "touch-screen" voting machines have proliferated throughout the country.

An estimated 50 million voters - about a third of the electorate - are using such machines to cast their ballots in the election, many of them in states which allow early voting - which this year includes Florida. The machines record votes immediately.

After the problems of 2000, dispensing with paper might seem a welcome way to proceed. Yet it is precisely that lack of paper - combined with general fears that the machines may be faulty, insecure or rigged - which has already inspired a series of lawsuits against the authorities which have introduced them.

Touch screen
How: Touch your preferred candidate's name on the screen
Pros: Easy and instantly recorded
Cons: Paper receipts not necessarily provided

The fact that most machines do not provide a paper receipt - making a recount impossible - has proven hugely controversial. Nevada is the only state using machines that will supply voters with a print-out of their choices.

But those who are worried about the new tend to be equally concerned about the old.

Lever voting - which similarly fails to provide a paper trail and which is also - in theory - susceptible to tampering - remains a predominant voting method, even though a machine has not been made since 1982.

Meanwhile, in some 26 states there are counties still using the punch-card systems; under the terms of the 2002 Hava legislation, the deadline for their replacement does not expire until 2006.

Of course, the chads will not necessarily hang. But memories of what happened in Florida create a spectre that few seem able to banish.

Staying home

But voters can avoid the stresses of both old and new by casting an absentee ballot by post. Indeed, voters in the state of Oregon have no choice - the election there is entirely mail based.

Deciphering a vote
No state wants to be this year's Florida

Since 2000, the number of states offering "no excuse" absentee ballots - where voters do not have to provide justification for not turning up in person - has risen sharply - partly in response to the problems of the last election, but also in an effort to increase turnout.

Whether it does in fact encourage greater voter participation is unclear. And this method of voting has also been a focus for fretting over fraud. There are concerns over forgery, party involvement in distributing ballots, and the prospect that the dead may be casting a vote from the grave.

And some are also unhappy with the philosophy of voting at home.

"If we more and more vote in isolation, if it becomes like paying the bill - well, it's a big change in the culture of voting. It is supposed to be a communitarian act," says Mr Ritchie.

Jennie Bowser, an electoral analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures, believes such concerns are a luxury. "Times have changed," she says. "Turnout is such that anything which can be done to get the vote out is a good thing."

But wherever one stands on the rights and wrongs of the current machinery of democracy - there is at least one area where there is consensus.

"After what happened last time, there will be so much scrutiny that if it's close, as it is expected to be in some states, rows are almost inevitable," says Ms Bowser.

Mr Ritchie agrees: "Unlike last time, everybody's ready. Both sides are gearing up for a legal fight."


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