Despite the highly publicized problems with voting in the 2000 presidential election, and the passage of federal legislation intended to bring efficiency and uniformity to elections, the 2004 election will be conducted with much the same equipment and in much the same way as four years ago.
Susan Inman, director of the Pulaski County Election Commission, said the only difference in Pulaski County from 2000 was that the touch-screen computers used in early voting have added an audio capability, so that now blind voters can vote unassisted. That capability was added last year, and Pulaski is the only county in the state that has it.
Otherwise, Pulaski Countians will vote the same way they did in 2000. For early voting, which is conducted at comparatively few locations, the touch-screen computers will be used. On Election Day, when many more polling places are used, the optical-scan method of voting will be employed, the voter marking a paper ballot that is then fed into a machine to be recorded.
Early voting is intended to accommodate voters from anywhere in the county. Hundreds of different ballots are required to list all the races for all the offices in all the various districts. The touch-screen computers can handle all the different ballots. But the requirements would be too much for the optical-scan machines, which require paper ballots.
If only one or two ballots are required, as on election day, when all the voters at a particular polling place reside in a limited geographic area, the optical-scan method can be used. The touch-screen computers are much more expensive than the optical-scan equipment, Inman said. Pulaski County can't afford to put one or more touch-screen computers in every precinct.
Optical-scan is the method used by most Arkansas counties, according to the secretary of state's office. But 13 Arkansas counties still use punch cards or lever-type voting machines, methods that do not meet the requirements of the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed in 2002. The act requires that all voting systems meet certain standards for accessibility, ballot review and second-chance voting. Lever machines and punchcards fail the test. (Remember the infamous "hanging chads" and "pregnant chads" on punch cards during 2000 recounts.) Still, it appears the levers will be pulled and the punch cards punched in the 13 counties again this year, because the federal Election Assistance Commission, created by HAVA, has not distributed money that Congress appropriated to buy new voting equipment in the states. Instead, the EAC will grant the 13 counties a waiver from the voting standards. The 13 are Benton, Boone, Marion, Baxter, Searcy, Faulkner, White, Mississippi, Saline, Hot Spring, Jefferson, Arkansas and Desha.
The same failure to disburse federal funds has halted progress toward Secretary of State Charlie Daniels' goal of a uniform voting system statewide. Now, Arkansas and the other states are awaiting assistance and direction from the EAC, according to Janet Miller, a spokesperson for Daniels.
For whatever reason, the appointment of EAC members stretched out over a long period of time and the agency was slow becoming operational. Cynics might suggest that the Bush administration is not greatly concerned about election reform, since Bush became president under the unreformed system, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in an unprecedented move, stopped a Florida recount and declared Bush president by a vote of 5 to 4. The same justices are still on the Court.
Meanwhile, some Democrats are concerned about any greater use of electronic systems that can be rigged. Their concern increased when a fund-raising letter from Walden W. O'Dell, chief executive officer of voting-machine manufacturer Diebold Inc., was made public. Diebold wrote to fellow Republicans that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president." O'Dell is a Bush "pioneer," which means that he's raised at least $100,000 for the Bush campaign.
HAVA now requires that new electronic voting systems have what is called a voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT). This supposedly allows a voter to verify, via an immediately printed paper audit trail, that his or her vote was accurately recorded at the time it was cast. It also, supposedly, makes possible an accurate recount. Skeptics question whether the electronic voting machines can actually be made as foolproof as their manufacturers claim. The touch-screen computers used in Pulaski County, manufactured by Election Systems and Software, do not have VVPAT capacity.
The state Board of Election Commissioners recently approved for use in Arkansas a VVPAT system manufactured by AccuPoll, Inc., of Tustin, Calif. Apparently this is the first such system authorized for use in Arkansas. The Board of Election Commissioners must authorize all voting equipment that can be purchased by the county election commissions. The Board consists of the secretary of state, who is chairman; a representative of the Democratic Party and a representative of the Republican Party; the president pro tem of the Senate; the speaker of the House of Representatives; and two members appointed by the governor.