Four years ago, Florida shocked the nation when presidential ballots in the state had to be recounted and at times excruciatingly examined, leaving Americans in doubt as to who their next president would be. Chads, pregnant or hanging, became a household name, and outdated punch-card voting equipment became the impetus for electoral reform throughout the nation.
In Arlington County, a proactive Office of Voter Registration has been able to maintain updated voting equipment, while in Florida several counties are hurrying to catch up.
“We actually were ahead of the game with the touch-screen machines,” said Linda Lindberg, Arlington County’s general registrar.
Last year, the county took a big step to update older electronic touch-screen voting equipment, enlisting a computer touch-screen machine, called the WINvote machine. Sleek and compact, the WINvote machine looks like a flat-screen computer monitor and has improved accessibility for those with disabilities, particularly the blind.
“In 2001 and 2002, we tested different versions, and last year we had the funding to implement [the WINvote machines] countywide,” said Lindberg, administrator in charge of conducting elections for Arlington County.
The WINvote machines, which weigh only nine pounds, debuted last November and have since been used for two primaries.
Lindberg says that the big test for the WINvote machines will be this November when she expects voter turnout to exceed 80 percent for the presidential election.
When the WINvote machines were first used last November, voter turnout was only 28.7 percent, and the primaries held earlier this year had lower turnout than that. So, the WINvote machines have yet to be used for an election with the high voter turnout of a presidential election. In the previous three presidential cycles, voter turnout in the county was 85 percent (1992), 77 percent (1996), and 71 percent (2000).
“We know that [the WINvote machines] are up to the task,” Lindberg said.
Even before the WINvote machines were introduced last year, Arlington County was ahead of the now famous Broward and Miami-Dade counties in Florida where election officials agonized over recounting punch cards and analyzing chads in the 2000 presidential election.
Nine years before the 2000 presidential election, Arlington County did away with mechanical lever voting equipment, which did not involve punch cards, and began using electronic touch-screen voting machines.
“These were very dependable machines,” said Annie Connole, the county’s voting machine technician. Bulky but reliable, the first generation electronic touch-screen machines weighed nearly 200 pounds yet were generations ahead of punch-card machines.
THE POLITICAL ENVIRONMENT following the 2000 election, however, guaranteed that improvements in voting procedures and equipment would be encouraged throughout the country. Congress, working under the bipartisan banner to “make every vote count,” passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002, which helped to develop national standards for elections and to avoid the problems encountered in Florida.
“Every state looked at its laws after [the 2000 election],” said Charlotte Cleary, the county’s former general registrar.
Cleary, who served 18 years as registrar and retired from the position in 2003, said that Virginia had procedural and administrative issues regarding recounts that needed to be addressed, while the main issue with voting equipment at the time was accessibility.
“Things ran very smoothly with the old [electronic touch-screen] machines,” Cleary said.
Recalling the 2000 election in Arlington, Cleary said that besides accessibility issues the only problems the county had were a few long lines in some of the polling locations and an unexpected run-in with Mother Nature.
“We had an incident where a raccoon or something had found its way into one of the schools,” Cleary said, “And we had to deal with that.”