Error-Free Election? Don't Count On It

This reporter's notebook was written by CBS News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian.
Details matter in the election business.

Those words belong – not to me – but an official who knows more than a thing or two about counting votes.

Paul DeGregorio helped promote democracy around the globe while providing technical election assistance in countries like Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Romania, Albania, China, and Cambodia.

Then in 2003 he became Chairman of the federal Election Assistance Commission.

It's been DeGregorio's job the last few years to oversee the seismic changes brought about by the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which led to the replacement of punch-card voting – goodbye, hanging chads! – with machines that definitively define voter intent. Hello, touch-screen machines and optical scanners!

Slow to follow the HAVA mandate, states bought half their new machines only in the last two years, making this Election Day a real-world test of the new technology. Doug Chapin, director of the non-partisan Electionline.org, told us, "Lots of jurisdictions around the country have been asked to swallow a lot of change in 2006, and many of them are going to suffer indigestion."

There is much concern and confusion hovering over many of our nation's 180,000-plus precincts as we approach Tuesday's critical midterm elections, especially how the nation's 1.4 million poll workers – who average 70 years of age – will handle all the new technology.

Will the machine makers provide enough technical support? What if there are power outages? What about the paper back-up?

The election landscape is littered with such questions these days, which is why during an hour-long interview at his office in Washington, D.C., I asked DeGregorio his greatest concern – man or machine?

"By far it's human error," he said.

Which brought us back to details.

"I don't think the American public really recognized all these details until the [contested] 2000 election," he said. "We've seen a lot of [election] reform in the last six years, more than the previous 200 before that…We don't have a system that can be changed overnight. But I still have confidence, and will have confidence, in the results that come from throughout the country on election night 2006."

Certainly, DeGregorio has his allies. During a subsequent trip to North Canton, Ohio – the home of Diebold, the biggest supplier of Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines – optimism was the name of the game.

Marketing Director Mark Radke spent the better part of an hour fending off my rather direct assault on the integrity and credibility of his machines based upon widespread reports of issues regarding reliability and vulnerability that surfaced before and after this year's primaries.

"I'll be blunt," said Radke at one point. "Diebold does not control the elections. We provide the election equipment."

"Quite honestly," he continued, "if correct or extensive poll worker training is not conducted or not conducted well, that can affect the outcome – the performance, I should say – of the equipment."

Radke went on to provide an impressive show-and-tell. As I pretended to vote in one mock election after another, the Diebold machine performed flawlessly. The Voter Access card worked without a glitch; the right screens immediately appeared; votes were summarized and displayed on a paper scroll before they were officially tabulated.

Of course, this was a demo machine in a sterile office environment.

The voting machines from companies like ES&S and Sequoia perform equally well in that environment, even though both companies have had problems. ES&S was tardy in delivering machines for programming before this year's primaries. Sequoia was suspected of having ties to the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez – a charge it has denied.

All of which brings me back to the "devil," and not the one Chavez referred to during his fiery speech at the United Nations. I'm talking about the one in the details.

There are going to be a lot of moving parts come Tuesday. I'd like to be able to say they're all going to be headed in the direction of a fair and controversy-free election. But I'm a detail kind of guy. So I can't.