Voting problems loom in US election

Long lines and long counts threaten to mar next month’s United States congressional elections as millions of Americans put new voting machines and rules to the test, election officials and experts say.

The result could be delays in knowing whether Democrats capture one or both houses of the US Congress, or whether President George Bush’s Republicans keep control.

”In close elections, it may be days and weeks before a winner is known in a particular race,” said Paul DeGregorio, chairperson of the US Election Assistance Commission, created to oversee a 2002 election-law overhaul.

He forecast, however, an improvement over previous elections and said: ”I think voters can trust the system.”

The election overhaul was passed after the 2000 vote, in which problems deciphering paper ballots in Florida helped fuel a five-week recount fight in which the US Supreme Court handed the presidency to Bush.

The law mandated electronic voting machines with a ”paper trail” back-up, statewide voter registries and opportunities to cast a ”provisional” ballot when a voter’s eligibility is in question.

Many of the changes take effect this year, when one-third of voters will cast their ballots on new electronic machines whose reliability in a national election is unproven.

Ohio — where Democratic voters in 2004 complained that long lines in their neighbourhoods kept them from voting — and Pennsylvania are two states with major races where the voting process will be closely watched on November 7.

Other states include Maryland, which had problems with its September primary election, and Georgia and Missouri, where courts threw out new voter-identification requirements and experts see a potential for disputes.

”We don’t know about the security flaws, we don’t know about the error rates,” said the Reverend DeForest Soaries, former chairperson of the Election Assistance Commission.

172-million registered

About 172-million Americans are so far registered to vote; 175-million registered for the 2004 presidential election, according to the Election Data Services consulting firm. A smaller share will cast ballots, in 183 000 voting precincts.

In some states there may be confusion after court battles over new state identification requirements. Voters whose eligibility is in dispute can cast provisional ballots, which could add to counting delays in close races.

Election officials also expect more absentee ballots, which take longer to count, cast by voters distrustful of the new machines. In Maryland, for example, the state’s Republican governor has encouraged absentee ballots.

There is also a shortage of trained poll workers.

”There’s a rather combustible confluence of events taking place in our elections right now,” said Century Foundation researcher Tova Wang.

”Where we may find ourselves at the end of Election Day is actually with stacks of paper and long, drawn-out, possibly contentious vote counting,” she said. Any delays could spur concerns over the legitimacy of the outcome, she added.

The largest US civil rights group, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, said it will monitor voting in 10 states.

In a predominantly black neighbourhood of Columbus, Ohio, Democrats have pushed hard to ensure people like Melvin Steward (72) can vote. Steward said he stood in the rain for four hours in 2004 trying to vote but eventually gave up.

”In my district they shorted us on voting booths. It bothered me because I never missed voting before,” Steward said. This time he applied for an absentee ballot.

”I’ve already turned my papers in,” he said. — Reuters

Additional reporting by Andrea Hopkins in Ohio

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