Following the 2000 election debacle in Florida, the condition of America's election machinery received considerable public scrutiny, prompting a drive to replace aging voting systems with newer technology.

Last year's elections proved a testing ground for new solutions. More than 200 counties nationwide introduced new technology into the voting process -- mostly in the form of touchscreen machines. A brief survey of media reports following the elections showed mixed results.

While no county suffered a complete voting disaster, some touchscreen machines in Florida and Georgia, for example, were misprogrammed or calibrated inaccurately. In other places, machines reportedly froze and had to be rebooted.

Specific problems encountered include two parishes in Louisiana -- Ascension and Tangipahoa -- where touchscreen voting machines manufactured by Election Systems & Software were tested. In Ascension, 200 machine malfunctions were reported, according to The Advocate, the local newspaper. In Tangipahoa, news reports said 20 percent of the machines malfunctioned.

In Broward County, Fla., election officials discovered that 103,222 votes -- including 34,136 votes for the governor's race -- were excluded from the preliminary ballot totals. Fortunately the additions did not change any final election outcome.

In Fort Worth, Texas, ballot results were delayed one day after county election workers failed to set up the software to count the ballots of those who voted straight party. Arguably many of these problems can be attributed to human error and unfamiliarity with new equipment.

The majority of last year's problems were quickly corrected, and for the most part, the impact was nothing more than longer voting lines in some precincts. The lesson in these examples is that when selecting a voting system that harnesses new technology, such systems should be as infallible as possible for both election workers and the general voting public.

Last year's tests seemed to prove that point in Fairfax County, Va. New touchscreen WINvote machines with the latest Wi-Fi technology were deployed in three precincts. Because the trial went so smoothly, the county placed an order with Advanced Voting Solutions (AVS) to purchase 1,000 WINvote units. Fairfax plans to use the wireless system for the rest of county's 580,000 registered voters in the 2004 presidential election.

Filling the Fairfax Wish List

Fairfax County had been shopping for new machines for some time -- even before the 2000 Florida catastrophe. "The primary motivation for looking for new machines was that the machines we are using now are getting old," said Judy Flaig, Fairfax election manager. "The technology is old and the equipment is old."

Over the years, the election staff in Fairfax developed a list of criteria -- a wish list -- they put forward to different vendors. "The machine we bought had much more of what was specifically requested by this particular office over the years than any other vendor," said Margaret Luca, secretary of the Election Board of Fairfax County.

Topping the wish list was a system lacking a single point that could cause systemwide failure. "We didn't want to be dependent on a system that used a central controller -- or some kind of master machine -- so if that master went down, the whole precinct would be dead in the water," Flaig said. "We were looking for something that could stand by itself. With WINvote, if one machine goes down in a precinct, the other nine continue on their merry way. Voting isn't interrupted in any significant way."

Another enticement, according to Luca, was WINvote's size. The actual voting machine has a 15-inch touchscreen and weighs only 8.9 pounds. A complete ballot station, including booth, weighs only 22 pounds and folds into what looks like an oversized briefcase. According to AVS, WINvote is the lightest-weight voting system certified by a number of states. This makes it much easier for election workers to carry and store.

Blake Harris  |  Contributing Editor