Eight years after the Florida presidential election fiasco where failed punch card technology turned into a national punch line and a historic Supreme Court decision, Americans go to the polls Nov. 4 with technology's ability to accurately record and secure your vote again on trial.
When the polls open, almost 90 percent of voters will cast their ballots on optically scanned paper ballots or electronic machines known as Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) devices, some that leave a paper trail and some that don't. How quickly did the technology change in eight years? Out of the nation's 3,117 counties, only 11 (all in Idaho) will be using punch card machines this time around, down from 572 in 2000.
The largest migration of voting technology in the nation's history also included what amounted to a referendum on DREs and optical scan systems. The clear winner is optical scanning, where voters mark a ballot and the ballot is scanned for votes. A number of voting jurisdictions in 2004 initially liked the idea of eliminating paper votes altogether and embraced paperless DREs, where voters use a touch-screen to electronically record their votes.
Voting machine makers such as Electronic Systems and Software, Premier Election Solutions (the former Diebold), Harte InterCivic and Sequoia Voting Systems all contend that paper trail DREs were available in the last presidential election, but it was voting jurisdictions that insisted on paperless machines.
But voters in 2004 clearly showed a basic distrust of paperless voting, and in 2008 fewer jurisdictions and registered voters will be using electronic voting equipment than in the previous election, snapping nearly three decades of consistent growth for electronic voting machines. Even newer DREs that create a paper trail didn't stop the trend to optical scanning.
In fact, every county that has changed voting systems since 2006 has moved to optical scan equipment. Ironically, the 2006-2008 shift from DREs to optical scanners increases the chance of voter confusion.
"History shows us that the greatest likelihood of election errors occurs the first time a jurisdiction changes voting systems," Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, said in a statement. Kimball's company, based in Manassas, Va., has been keeping track of voting equipment usage since 1980.
Overall, over 58.9 percent of the nation's counties will be using optical scan voting systems for this election, representing more than 56 percent of the country's registered voters. In 2006, almost 50 percent of registered voters used optical scan equipment.
Voters using DREs, paperless or otherwise, will fall from 37.6 percent in 2006 to 32.6 percent in 2008, according to Election Data Services' numbers.
"While many of these jurisdictions have tested out their procedures in the past four years, it's the voters themselves, both newly registered and those that haven't voted since 2004, that could cause problems," Brace said.
You can book it that some voting machines won't start or will crash in the middle of voting, there will be memory cards that can't be read, scanners that don't scan, touch-screens that flip votes, incorrectly programmed tally servers, and myriad other software glitches.
And those are just the start of the problems facing voters: There will be inadequately trained poll workers and voter registration problems, and some eligible voters will be denied their votes due to computer glitches in a state's computerized database of registered voters.
The good news? A University of Missouri study of 2004 voting results found that newer touch-screen machines had an error rate of just 1 percent, compared with 1.7 percent for punch-card ballots.