Down for the Count (9/8/06)

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Jammed machines, rejected ballots, malfunctions that declare the losing candidate the winner...if this were occurring on American Idol, you can imagine the outrage, but it's happening with a far more important American institution: democratic elections. New election machines, as mandated and funded by federal law, may create a new election debacle instead of correcting the old one.

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which allocated $3.1 billion for all 50 states to update their voting systems, following election fiascos in years past.

Some industry analysts suggest that the government implemented the new technology too quickly to the detriment of not only security and performance of the new machines, but the integrity of our democratic process. "Losing candidates are going to have more and more credibility when they say 'Well, I think that the voting machines were rigged,'" Avi Rubin, a computer science professor at John Hopkins University, told NOW.

Rubin performed an analysis of voting machines produced by Diebold, one of the four manufacturers of the county's electronic voting machines. But his recommendation that the machines not be used in elections fell on deaf ears.

To see for ourselves if the new technology was up to task, NOW traveled to Oakland County, Michigan on Primary Day, where election workers encountered more than a few frustrating snags, even when demonstrating the machines for us. In one instance, it took five attempts for the machine to accept a ballot.

We also checked in on other states, including Texas, Iowa, New Mexico, and - you guessed it — Ohio. What we found were alarming scenes of computer and human error, poor results validation, nonexistent contingency plans, and extreme vulnerability to tampering.

These are not isolated cases. In half of 37 primaries held this year, there were technical problems associated with the new HAVA-mandated technology. These included:

* An extra 100,000 votes recorded but never cast in Texas, which was blamed on a programming error.

* A ballot-counting malfunction in Iowa that declared a losing candidate the winner.

* Allegations of discrepancies between votes cast and the corresponding paper trail created by machines in Ohio.

"We are no more certain today than we were in 2000 that we will not have an embarrassing moment and a tragic outcome in this year's election," Deforest Soaries, former Chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, told NOW.

Will new voting machines cure election headaches or cause them? Next time on NOW.