Saturday, October 9, 2004

RICHMOND — Twenty-two different types of voting machines await Virginians in next month’s presidential election. Twenty-three localities will use computer touch-screen machines for the first time. One city will use equipment never tried before in a Virginia election.

And the nation will be watching.

The pressure to avoid a repeat of Florida’s election crisis in the last presidential race, combined with an extraordinary last-minute voter registration surge and heavy absentee voting, has election officials on edge.

“As long as Virginia is not Florida,” State Board of Elections (SBE) Chairman Michael Brown said almost prayerfully Thursday.

State and local election boards have worked long hours testing, checking and rechecking machines, training staff and familiarizing the electorate with changes resulting from the disputed 2000 Florida recount.

“This is under such a magnifying glass,” said SBE Secretary Jean Jensen when the board met Thursday to approve software that repairs a minor glitch on a type of touch-screen voting machine that will be tested for the first time in Virginia in Colonial Heights on Nov. 2.

In large localities and small, registrars sense the scrutiny even as they deal with a spike in public interest in this year’s presidential election that they can’t explain.

“We’ve been working long days and we have to make sure everything goes smoothly on the 2nd,” said Manda Gravley, the voter registrar in Amelia County.

Hers is among 18 counties and five cities where voters will use touch-screen computer technology for the first time. While the machines will be new to those voters, all of them are systems that have been tested successfully elsewhere in Virginia in previous elections.

Four years ago, the presidency hung in the balance for 36 days during the ponderous and quarrelsome recount of ballots in several localities in Florida. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling halted the recount in December and made President Bush the winner there by 537 votes, giving him an Electoral College majority over Al Gore.

Even in Virginia, where Republicans have won comfortably for the past 40 years, the repercussions linger in heightened attention to the fundamentals.

“You’re a little nervous about the election, but you try to think positive,” Miss Gravley said.

In Norfolk, touch-screen voting made its debut in a largely trouble-free 2002 election. The machines performed well, said city Registrar Elisa Long, though workers reported problems tabulating unofficial results at one precinct.

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