public and private sector.

Optical Still Popular

Although touchscreen technology received the most attention during November's elections, optical scanning -- a hybrid of paper ballots and computer technology -- remains in wide use. In more than 1,200 counties, which represent 27 percent of the U.S. population, voters marked paper ballots by filling a box beside the candidate's name. Voters then fed the ballots into optical scanners that read and counted the marks. By comparison, approximately 510 counties -- less than 10 percent of the population -- used touchscreen voting machines, according to Election Data Services. Despite the growing use of e-voting technology, punch cards remained the most common method for casting ballots, being used by 32 percent of the population.

A study by The Boston Globe compared Boston's infamous lever machines with optical scanners, which are widely used in the rest of the state. State election records showed cities and towns that used lever machines had 60 percent more untabulated votes than the statewide average. When those communities shifted to optical scanners, the number of uncounted votes dropped significantly.

But voting technology firms say state and local governments won't see real advantages until they eliminate paper ballots. "In Arkansas and Minnesota, they ran out of ballots," Adler said. "That doesn't happen with e-voting." Computerized voting also can easily accommodate ballots in different languages and "read" ballots to blind voters with a text-to-speech feature. Georgia used that option on its touchscreen machines, and for the first time allowed blind citizens to vote without assistance.

It looks almost inevitable that lever machines and paper ballots will go the way of the buggy whip, due in part to legislation signed by President Bush in October 2002 that will update the nation's old-fashioned election procedures. The bill authorizes $3.9 billion in the next three years to help states purchase new voting equipment, train poll workers and establish statewide, computerized lists of registered voters.

Although some states see this as a chance to upgrade to the technology used in Georgia and parts of Florida, others see the legislation as an opportunity to open the door wider and set standards that will enable various new methods of voting, online being the most notable.

"It's a tremendous opportunity to set standards and do some innovative projects that prove the technology can work," Adler said. One possibility is to use computer technology to allow remote voting, a concept readily accepted in western states such as California, Washington and Oregon, where many citizens vote early or by mail. As long as the bar for standards is set high enough to ensure voter privacy, ballot security and verifiability, casting ballots via computers or wireless devices should be viable, he said.

In Swindon, England, Votehere's technology was tested in a local election where 11 percent of voters used the Internet and 5 percent voted by phone. Overall, the voting experiment boosted turnout by 3.5 percent compared with figures from two years ago.

Adler and others are convinced that voting via the Internet, phone and other electronic means will cross the ocean and eventually be accepted in the United States. "Voting is one of the core foundations of democracy," Adler said. "We must move forward responsibly to improve the process of elections."

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor