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Ballot, machine problems to blame for uncounted votes in 2000 election

By Shirley Zilberstein
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Problems with ballots, equipment, voter registration and polling places are to blame for the 4 million to 6 million uncounted votes in the last presidential election, a study released Monday said.

The report, called "Voting: What Is and What Could Be," was compiled by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology.

The survey suggests immediate reforms that could cut the number of lost votes by half for the 2004 elections. Those reforms include installing machines that scan paper ballots immediately at the polling place and making voter registration information available to workers at polling stations.

Although the study was born in the wake of the Florida recounts, it finds that the voting and vote-counting problems in Florida were not the worst in the country. Illinois, South Carolina, Idaho, Wyoming and Georgia all had higher rates of spoiled, unmarked or uncounted ballots in the 2000 presidential election. Some cities, including Chicago and New York, had rates of unmarked, uncounted and spoiled ballots well in excess of the state of Florida.

MIT and Cal Tech's study: 'Voting, What it is and What Could Be'  
Central Findings:  
Between 4 million and 6 million votes for the presidency were discarded following the last Election Day, Nov. 7, 2000
1.5 million to 2 million of those were discarded because of faulty, aged equipment or poorly designed ballots
1.5 million to 3 million votes were lost because of registration foul-ups
500,000 to 1.2 million were lost because of confusion at polling places on Election Day
An unknown amount were discarded because of problems with absentee voting
Florida was just one of many states with problems – others included Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, South Carolina and Wyoming
More votes were lost or spoiled in New York City and Chicago than in Florida
Suggested Remedies:  
Retirement of punch-card machines and pull-lever voting machines
Installation and use of optical scanning machines
Equip polling places with laptop computers programmed to cross-reference voter registrations
Replace absentee ballots with in-person voting before Election Day
Provide provisional ballots when registration cannot be verified at the polling place
Estimated cost of changes: $400 million per year leading up to 2004 presidential election  

Among the other major findings: Optical scanning machines provide the most reliable method of voting. The report recommends completely getting rid of punch cards, with their notorious "chads," and lever-operated machines.

The survey estimates that 1.5 million to 2 million presidential votes were lost in the 2000 election because of faulty equipment and confusing ballots, and that 1.5 million to 3 million were lost because of registration mix-ups. It said 500,000 to 1.2 million votes were lost because of polling place operations, and an unknown number of votes were likely lost because of absentee ballot problems.

"These are qualified voters who wanted to vote but could not or were not counted," the report said.

To remedy this problem, the authors said, polling places should be equipped with laptop computers to provide registration information so eligible voters are not turned away on Election Day. Provisional ballots, they said, should be used when questions arise about the validity of someone's registration, and on-demand absentee ballots should be replaced with in-person early voting.

Using data from the last four general elections, researchers examined the relationship between "residual votes" -- uncounted, unmarked or overvoted ballots -- and equipment, and found that optical scanning machines based in precincts (not county polling stations) produced the fewest uncounted votes, at a rate of 1.5 percent. These machines actually fared better in the analysis than did existing electronic voting systems -- those on which voters push buttons to register their choices -- which had a rate of 2.3 percent of uncounted votes.

Touch-screen voting machines, according to the report, are "still unproven."

The review said an analysis of exit polls in the 2000 election suggests that 70 percent of uncounted presidential votes were unintentional, meaning that approximately 1.5 million votes for president were "cast" but not recorded or counted.

Nationwide, registration mix-ups led to 3 million registered voters not casting a vote, the report said, citing numbers provided by the Census Bureau. The review recommends improved, more-centralized voter registration databases and making such information accessible to all poll workers on Election Day.

The survey also recommends changing operating procedures at polling places to better prepare voters, help them find their polls, keep lines shorter and make poll staffers more alert.

The 92-page report is the work of 10 computer scientists, mechanical engineers and political scientists at MIT and Cal-Tech, who examined the technology and administration of voting around the country and surveyed state and county election administrators nationwide.

• Massachusetts Institute of Technology
• Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project

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