Sunday, July 22, 2001

Voting catch: Many don't know how

Some reformers push ballot education

By Derrick DePledge
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — Strange things happened in Florida during the presidential voting last year, so election workers in Madison County decided to take a closer look at some of the ballots.

        Some voters, it seems, were creative. Linda Howell, the county's election supervisor, said she found ballots with votes for nearly every presidential ticket and several combinations in between. “I just couldn't explain it,” she said. “Why would people go to the polls to do that?”

        The 2000 election revealed numerous defects in the nation's election process, from outdated voting machines to poorly trained election workers to political partisans in charge of crucial oversight decisions. But the unprecedented scrutiny of individual ballots exposed a scary truth: A lot of people do not know how to vote.

        Although the exact number of voter errors nationally is impossi ble to figure, anecdotal evidence and several studies suggest thousands of ballots were discarded because voters messed up.

        Researchers at Caltech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimate that 4 million to 6 million votes were lost because of faulty voting equipment, confusing ballots, registration mix-ups and polling-place delays. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that 180,000 votes in Florida went uncounted because machines or election workers could not determine voter intent, or because voters selected more than one candidate.

        “It was ludicrous that so many votes were lost,” said Mary Knight of the League of Women Voters of Florida in Tallahassee. “A lot of those people never voted before and they needed to be told what to do.”

        Most of the political response to election reform has centered on fact-finding commissions, buying new voting equipment and developing uniform standards for bal lot-counting, oversight and voter registration. Activists, and some election officials, hope voter education is not overlooked.

        The two leading federal election-reform proposals stress further study and the purchase of better voting equipment. A bill by Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., would create a national commission to study the election system and provide money to states for new voting equipment, poll-worker training and voter education.

        A House bill sponsored by Rep. Robert Ney, R-Ohio, would help states replace punch-card voting machines — the most problematic last year — and authorize as much as $150 million for poll-worker training and voter education.

        State lawmakers have proposed more than 1,600 election-reform bills and several states, most notably Florida, have already approved legislation.

        Upgraded voting equipment can limit voter errors. A study of voting in 40 congressional districts by Democrats on the House Government Reform Committee found higher rates of uncounted votes in places that used punch-card ballots. Low-income, minority districts had more uncounted ballots, but disparities shrank where voters had access to better voting equipment.

        Federal money, if approved by Congress, might not arrive in time for states to upgrade voting equipment before the next election cycle.

        In Ohio, where 70 of the state's 88 counties used punch-card ballots last year, election officials are planning an aggressive voter education campaign. Public-service announcements will stress the civic responsibilities of voting, and videos will be sent to community leaders explaining how to properly use voting equipment.

        Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, who has asked Congress to help states purchase new voting equipment, said voters, election workers and politicians all have roles in preventing another disputed election. “We're going to do our fair share in making sure voters are better educated.”


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