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Chadless Ballots, Puzzled Voters

The chaos of 2000 won't be repeated, but new systems require adaptation
By Kristina Sauerwein, Times Staff Writer Posted: 2/28/04

Tuesday's election will mark the first time in California that no chad-bearing voting machines will be allowed, courtesy of a federal court order.

But forecasters for the statewide primary election predict that voters from Alameda to Yuba counties will have a confusing time casting their ballots. The state's 58 counties will offer roughly a dozen ways to vote, such as touching, dialing, inking and levering ballot choices using touch-screen, optical-scan or non-scored-punch-card systems.

The Help America Vote Act, which President Bush signed into law two years ago, aims to prevent the hanging-chad fiasco that threw the 2000 presidential election into chaos. It requires states to improve the election process, mainly by modernizing voting equipment to eliminate chads, those pesky perforated paper pieces spewed by scored-punch-card machines.

Like a home remodeling project that gets messier before completion, the election process will continue to change as counties fine-tune, switch methods, buy advanced technology and comply with state and federal voting standards.

But during the transition, county registrars and election experts worry about voter befuddlement.

"Voting can feel more like doing your taxes than exercising your freedom," said Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Davis. "It can feel more like taking a test."

For San Gabriel resident Kay Mayorga, nervousness set in one day this month as she navigated a touch-screen voting machine, one of 16 early-voting electronic booths stationed in Los Angeles County libraries, public buildings and recreation centers.

Mayorga, who doesn't use the Internet or own a computer, had successfully used the machine once before, but the second time seemed like the first.

"I was nervous," Mayorga said, after she cast her ballot inside the Jackie Robinson Center on a quiet afternoon in Pasadena. "This time I read the instructions carefully, and it was easier. I liked it. It's better than waiting in long lines on election day."

Residents in Riverside and San Bernardino counties will vote Tuesday by touch screen.

Though many voters have given high marks to the touch-screen system, critics call it confusing, unreliable and prone to mechanical mishaps.

They also expressed concern that the system does not leave a paper trail, meaning there is no backup in case the computer memory fails. (By next year, the state will require paper trails for such devices.)

No voting system is fully secure, officials said, although that is the goal.

Complicating the voting process, at least temporarily, the state also expects $250 million from the Help America Vote Act to modernize systems, said Tony Miller, legal counsel for the California secretary of state's elections division.

That means a steady stream of new technologies — and growing voter confusion, Miller said.

"It's just the nature of change," he said. "However, in a few years, voting should ultimately be easier. People will have more options."

Already, choices vary among counties. To deal with glitches and voter confusion on election day, most counties will provide hotlines and newly trained poll workers to help voters with the new systems.

Some 4 million registered voters in Los Angeles County can try the new InkaVote system Tuesday. The ballot resembles those of the old-fashioned, chad-producing punch cards. But instead of poking holes, people use a marking device to fill in circles representing their ballot choices.

Results are then placed in a "secrecy sleeve," returned to poll workers and optically scanned, said Conny B. McCormack, L.A. County's registrar-recorder.

"It's easy to use," she said, "but change is hard for voters."

The $3-million InkaVote method is an interim device until the county determines — and spends tens of millions of dollars on — the most efficient and technologically secure electronic voting system, McCormack said.

"At least we don't have to worry about chads anymore," she said. "They caused a lot of people a lot of anxiety."

Ventura County voters Tuesday will use a chadless punch-card machine that employs a chrome lever to mark choices.

In Orange County, voters will encounter a new electronic system called eSlate. Ballots are cast on an electronic pad about the size of legal paper, resembling LeapFrog devices that children use to learn spelling and math. A dial is turned to highlight a choice, then a button is pushed to cast the vote.

Dozens of voters — some flustered, some not — have already tried the system at six Orange County malls, where early-voting kiosks were installed and available until Feb. 22.

Nontraditional polling places can also confuse voters, at least initially, election experts said. The goal is to encourage more people, especially the young, to vote.

"There's a lot of change that is happening in voting," said R. Michael Alvarez, a Caltech political scientist and co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, created after the 2000 presidential election. "The hope is that new technology will make the voting process easier and accurate."

That includes offering audio devices for the hearing-impaired and large-print ballots for those with vision problems, said Alvarez, who has written several books on voting.

The next revolution in voting may occur in about a decade when the Internet becomes a secure place to vote, Alvarez said.

"Internet voting is still in its early stages," he said. "Some people are reluctant to change or use technology."

And for those who absolutely refuse to try a new system but still want to vote, absentee voting is still an option for future elections.

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