Already running behind for 2004, voting-machine exec says

By Jim Drinkard

USA TODAY

WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the nation's largest voting-equipment company says delays in Congress and state capitals have cost the nation its chance of replacing all antiquated punch-card voting machines in time for the 2004 presidential election.

''Time is our enemy,'' William Welsh II, chairman of Election Systems & Software, said in an interview. ''While we are diddling around with this dialogue in Washington, a lot of jurisdictions are sitting on their hands, waiting to see what they can get from the federal government.''

For many of the nearly 50 million voters around the nation who still vote on punch-card equipment, that means modernization ''isn't going to happen'' any time soon, he said. ''The entire industry can't do it by 2002, or even by 2004,'' he said.

Welsh planned to deliver the same message to Congress today at a hearing of the House Administration Committee, the first time lawmakers will hear publicly from the voting-equipment industry.

Punch cards, the technology blamed for November's presidential election debacle in Florida, remain the most common voting method in the country. One-third of Americans vote on the machines, which were first introduced in the 1960s. Punch-card machines remain in use in more than 500 of the nation's 3,140 counties, including many of the most populous ones.

Some counties are upgrading without waiting for federal money. Florida's 25 punch-card counties are pushing forward under a new law that bans punch cards. Houston and San Antonio are shopping for new equipment. Oakland has contracted for a new system. Many more are waiting, however, including Chicago, which just spent $26 million on an upgrade of its old punch-card system for the 2000 election.

For the largest punch-card jurisdiction in the USA, Los Angeles County, it's mostly a question of money. ''If a fairy came down with $100 million in the next 18 months, we could be ready for the 2004 election,'' said Conny McCormack, the county registrar. Her agency handles more ballots on Election Day than 41 states. But the state is strapped for cash because of its electricity crisis, and it will be hard to find even the $3 million McCormack is seeking for a limited pilot project on electronic voting.

Many sponsors of election-reform bills in Congress say they hope to eradicate punch-card technology by the congressional elections next year. But Welsh said that would be ''a prescription for disaster'' because voting systems must be customized for each locality and officials and voters trained to use them. President Bush provided no money in his budget for election reform.

Among the roadblocks to upgrading voting technology quickly:

* The pool of expertise in elections is small. Welsh's company, with about 400 employees, is the largest in the field. It's hard to find people to conduct the necessary training who have experience with all the things that can go wrong in elections.

* Introducing new voting equipment works best in a primary election, when fewer voters turn out. That provides a shakedown that helps identify problems and allows time to fix them before the general election. Being ready in time for primaries means starting as much as a year before the general election, however.

* Voting hardware and software must be approved by the National Association of State Election Directors, then by each state where the new technology would be used. But the group has months of backlogs.