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Maybe election day won't be a fiasco after all

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"The positive message I'm trying to bring is that if we focus on a particular problem, we can make progress," says Stewart. The problem with voting machines "hasn't been perfectly handled, but bottom line, more people were enfranchised as a consequence of what we did over the last four years."

New machines, which featured improved interface with voters and no more hanging chads, were not the only reason for improvement, Stewart notes. States with lowered residual vote rates had also done a better job of training poll workers. And voters knew to be more careful as they voted, after the problems in 2000.

Looking ahead to Nov. 7, in which 30 percent of the nation's voting jurisdictions will be using new equipment, election experts agree that the biggest test is yet to come, and a variety of factors could snowball into major problems: Election officials are chronically short of poll workers, and many who do come are retirees uncomfortable with new technology. The high demand for electronic voting machines, with just a few vendors producing them, has led to delays in delivery and a shortage of technical support staff.

One new feature in many states is a requirement for a "voter verified paper audit trail." This year, 27 states require them, compared with one in 2004. During the primaries, some of the reported problems were attributed to jammed printers and improperly loaded paper, making some backup ballots uncountable.

As a result of this and other problems, some officials have called for a return to paper ballots, or at least the option of using them. In Colorado, the state Democratic Party has called on voters to use absentee ballots after a judge concluded that the state had failed to establish minimum security standards for electronic voting machines.

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