A few bumps in the road for new voting machines

America’s voters waited in long lines Tuesday as polling officials frantically fiddled with electronic voting machines and new registration procedures that caused delays in hundreds of precincts.

Thirty-two percent of the nation’s counties faced their first big test for new ballot equipment and several states implemented new computerized lists of registered voters, reforms both mandated by the Help America Vote Act of 2002.

Problems were reported in Colorado, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, and Utah. In some precincts, voters were asked to switch to paper ballots, which will delay a final count in some close races.

“I’ve been voting for 50 years,” said Denver-area barber Howard Halbert. “Look at this line today! This is about as stupid as you can get.”

As voters lined up more than 100-deep at Denver’s Mamie Eisenhower Park Recreation Center, polling officials said the problem was the allocation of equipment. They had 16 ballot booths but only four computer registration booths.

“Only the city of Denver can break something that doesn’t need fixing,” said business consultant Richard Davies. He said in the past, voting rarely took him longer than 20 minutes.

The 2002 election reform law required computerized registration lists and outlawed the use of antiquated mechanical level machines and confusing punch cards. Still some states used the old equipment Tuesday.

Most counties that switched to new machines this year chose optical scanners that tally cardboard ballots or electronic touch-screen machines. But both kinds of equipment failed by the hundreds throughout the nation Tuesday.

“Yeah, we figured out what the glitch was. Some of the machines were not programmed correctly,” said an exasperated Bill Bruns, president of the Delaware County Elections Board in Muncie, Ind. “I don’t know how many precincts are affected. But we’ve just voted to extend the voting hours.”

Muncie voters who left without voting Tuesday morning were permitted to vote until 8:40 p.m., well past the traditional 6 p.m. deadline.

Even election officials who had been using optical scan equipment for years said they felt extraordinary pressures in the 2006 general election that decides control of Congress and most of the nation’s governorships.

“How do I know how many machines are down? They are still out in the field,” said David Clayton, town clerk of West Warwick, R.I. “We have a few problems with these machines in every election. But for some reason, this time around, everyone is making this into a conspiracy theory.”

Some of his town’s optical scanners were failing, forcing voters to store their votes in a ballot box to be tabulated later.

A precinct in Bonita Springs, Fla., delayed opening not because of malfunctioning ballot machines but because a computer printer had broken. Officials thought they couldn’t use the machines until they had first printed a “zero tape” showing the machines had no recorded votes at the start of Election Day.

“It was a miscommunication with the poll workers,” said Supervisor of Elections Sharon Harrington. They were allowed to print a “zero tape” later in the day, she said.

Election experts had predicted such problems for months, the natural outcome when people must use new equipment and procedures for the first time.

“Elections are like a finely tuned symphony. If the horns or the violins don’t play what they are supposed to, it suddenly becomes a mess,” said Kimbrall Brace, a Washington, D.C., elections consultant. “History has shown that the worst time for elections is that first election when new voting equipment is used.”

There was also scattered confusion over new procedures to identify voters.

St. Louis election officials called two judges to remind them that photo identification is no longer required after reports that poll workers at two precincts were asking for IDs. The Missouri Supreme Court struck down the identification requirements last month, calling it unconstitutional.

But Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan said that she was asked to show photo IDs three times before eventually being allowed to vote absentee Friday. She said she worries some voters will be held to a higher standard than others before being allowed to cast ballots.

“To have that experience personally was very troubling,” Carnahan said.