Get Ready for the Glitches

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A man casts an early ballot on an electronic machine in Miami, Florida.

Even before it starts tomorrow morning, the 2006 election is already shaping up as one massive lab experiment in how we cast and count 80 million votes or more. When you figure that most of us will have the chance to make anywhere from 20 to 25 choices at polling stations — on statewide races, local elections, constitutional amendments, local options and your county library and community college board elections — we are talking about tracking and tallying upwards of 2 billion different decisions. It's a wonder we can do it at all.

But it's not the sheer numbers that make 2006 unlike any election in the past. There are new legal and technical requirements this year, which could stretch some parts of this count well into the week. Here are three:

New Voter ID Rules: About a dozen states have enacted stricter voter ID laws in the last few years, and these laws usually require voters to produce a photo ID before obtaining a ballot. Since not every potential voter has a photo ID, many of these measures have been contested in state and federal courts by plaintiffs charging the state's with voter suppression, and several have been modified even in the last week. Ohio, for example, was forced by court ruling just last Wednesday to loosen its new ID requirements. A similar walk-back occurred in Georgia, where voters can now produce one of 17 different forms of ID or swear an affidavit of identity — far easier than producing a photo ID. Other states haven't backed down on their new rules. Check your Secretary of State's website if you aren't sure what to bring. But be prepared for challenges.

New Voting Machines: For the first time this year, nearly 40% of Americans will vote by electronic device; nearly all of us will have our votes counted that way. That alone will cause some delays: voters won't all know how to operate them, poll workers will not be all fully trained, and, if recent primary voting is any indication, there are going to be technical problems. As states and counties certified their new devices in October — and it's not uncommon for multiple types of machines to be used in almost every state — there were reports of glitches, ballot errors, machines communicating in the wrong languages with voters, and continued doubts about chain of custody in the wake of multiple reports that most of the machines can be easily hacked. More than 26 states have adopted some kind of verifiable audit trail so voters can check their choices against the machine, but many states lack a paper trail of any kind, contending that it's not necessary or the printers are too expensive. Guam, at least, isn't taking chances: On Saturday, the American protectorate's governor signed a bill suspending the use of the electronic devices next week. There will almost certainly be dozens of real-time reports from polling places of machine malfunctions; each one will have to be run down and checked. Let the recount begin.

Alternative Voting: A number of states have gone to what is called "no fault" absentee voting this year, which means voters no longer need an excuse to obtain an absentee ballot. Applications for the absentee option have exploded partly because of worries about the paperless machines, and partly because both parties have mailed applications to millions of voters whether they requested them or not. That could shorten lines at the polls on Election Day but lengthen the count on election night. All around the U.S., the percentage of absentee balloting is exploding: most jurisdictions are seeing a jump in the ballots going out and coming back in by mail. More than 50% of the total turnout in the states of Washington and Nevada will be by absentee ballot; in California, the estimate is 44% of turnout. In San Diego last week, officials ran out of absentee ballots and had to send out photocopies. In Cleveland, more than 100,000 people are expected to vote absentee. Cuyahoga County officials can't start counting those until midnight on Election Day morning; they have to stop counting when the regular votes arrive. The upshot? It's going to be a long night in Ohio. And probably a few other places as well.