New technology in the voting booth
The curtained voting booth - the ''closet of American democracy'' - is undergoing a thorough refurbishing. A host of new voting technology, now being installed or experimented with, is moving the nation's balloting process further away from the days of paper and pencil and more into the electronic era.
Enthusiasts claim the changes could lead to more integrity in the election process, clipping voter fraud and making vote-counting a silicon snap. Some election officials, however, worry about the cost and confusion that may result from some of the new machines.
The driving forces behind the gradual change are money and speed. The mainstay of the past - the old mechanical lever machine - was reliable but expensive, both in terms of price and the time and effort required to store and haul them around. The newer systems are smaller and more portable. This means, in theory, that more machines can be placed in polling places and in neighborhoods, cutting down on the time voters must stand in line.
This could be crucial in next Tuesday's election. Many experts expect voter turnout to be up for the first time in 24 years. Newer computer-driven systems can also turn out results quickly - no small thing in these days of instant communication.
''Clearly these new systems are going to have the effect of making the election more manageable,'' says Dr. Gary Greenhalgh, director of the clearinghouse on election administration at the Federal Election Commission. But , he adds: ''All these systems raise new problems that voting officials have to be aware of.'' Among the warts and wonders of technologies:
* Paper ballot. Yes, it's still around. In fact, 10 percent of those voting next week will likely use it. In areas where voters are few or in elections where the choices are limited, the paper ballot is adequate. It remains the preferred method in most other countries, where slates are simpler and referendums lacking.
* Mechanical machines. The conventional lever machine is going the way of the buggy whip, although it still records 30 percent of the votes cast. Companies stopped making the machine two years ago. Its foibles: cost (up to several thousand dollars per machine) and bulk (often 600 pounds or more, making machines irksome to transport and store, with some cities sinking several million dollars into getting them in place for each election).
* Punch-card systems. Use of these has been growing for years, and they are now the favorite voting method (50 percent) in the United States. Voters punch or mark their choices on ballots, which are then fed into central computers for counting. Computers allow quick processing, and the ballot-punchers themselves are easy to cart around. But any system that uses computers can be expensive, too, and it is possible to tamper with the cards.
* Optical scanning. This method, in use only two years or so, is one of the fastest-growing ones. Paper ballots are marked and then put through scanners similar to those used at grocery checkouts. The data are stored, then the ballot is dropped into a sealed box. One plus: There is both a paper and an electronic record of the tally. If voters aren't careful when shading in their choices, however, the machine may reject their ballots and they will have to start over.
* All-electronic. These machines will be tried for the first time this fall. One type combines elements of the old lever machine and the computer. Voters push buttons on a machine that blinks a red light next to names of the candidates of their choice. The results are stored on a cartridge in the machine , which is later taken to a central location and plugged into a computer, which tallies the votes. The machines will be used next week in parts of Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and New Mexico.
One still-experimental system would use only personal computers. In the booth , a ballot would pop up on a screen and the voter would mark it using an ''electronic pencil.'' Results could be transmitted over telephone lines. This approach may appeal to the video-game generation and, points out Dr. Richard Smolka, a voting machine expert at American University, ''do away with a lot of possible errors in printing ballots.'' But others caution that computers still scare many people.
One advantage of any of the systems using computers is that more data can be turned out on voter trends and behavior after polling. Election officials have always painstakingly compiled and distributed voting results. Now they are doing it quickly with breakdowns on everything from voter patterns by ethnic group and age to comparisons of voter turnout by precinct with past years. These Michener-esque tomes are pored over by polls, pundits, and parties.
New systems, however, also produce new problems. Machines still have to be rigorously tested. This becomes particularly critical with computer-driven ones that don't have a paper record of the vote as a backup. A software snafu could wipe out the election results - or, at the least, force a time-consuming duplication of a storage tape. California, as one precaution, requires that ballots in 1 percent of the precincts in each county be hand-counted to ensure the machines' accuracy. No system, either, is completely tamperproof. Local election officials remain the best defense against fraud.
Another new ballot idea, allowing people to vote by phone, appears a nonwinner for now. A chief snag: ensuring the integrity of the vote. A voiceprint or social security number could be used to verify a voter's identity, but who's to say someone isn't standing by the phone and bribing or threatening the person to vote in a certain way? So the idea of trooping to the polling place still seems sacrosanct.