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Maybe election day won't be a fiasco after all

Midterm elections will feature a paper audit trail in 27 states.

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For weeks, headlines have blared about anticipated problems on Election Day as new technology is deployed around the country. The Nov. 7 vote "could get ugly," warned one paper. Public officials are "wary" of electronic voting machines, said another, noting calls by some leaders to revert to paper ballots.

Indeed, the unprecedented rollout of new machines, as provided by law following the Florida election fiasco of 2000, led to widely reported problems during this year's primaries – including some where close elections are anticipated, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Missouri, in a year where partisan control of Congress hangs in the balance.

Election experts have no trouble painting doomsday scenarios in which control of the House boils down to one or two close races that are thrown into recounts and legal wrangling that drag on for weeks, even into January – which could leave it up to the current Republican majority to decide whom to seat and whom not to seat.

"But that would have to be a perfect storm," says Edward Foley, an election law expert at Ohio State University.

In fact, experts report the system is improving overall, even as intense scrutiny of problems threatens to undermine voter confidence in the accuracy of elections. An analysis published earlier this year by Charles Stewart, head of the political science department at MIT, found that a reduction in the "residual vote rate" – blank votes and over-votes in which too many votes are cast – led to the counting of an additional 1 million ballots in 2004, compared with 2000.

Three of the four states with big declines – Florida, Georgia, and Illinois – had made significant upgrades in their voting machines in the intervening years, and it is likely that those upgrades were a major factor, Mr. Stewart says. Florida alone saw a decline in blank votes and over-votes from 2.9 percent to 0.4 percent.

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