Washington When tens of millions of voters flock to the polls in less than two weeks, the nation could experience another Florida-style meltdown because of confusion over rules, disputes over new voting systems, a lack of poll workers and the high potential for court battles in any close contest.
That's the warning from the Election Reform Information Project, a nonpartisan clearinghouse on all aspects of voting, in its pre-election survey of 50 states and the District of Columbia, which was released Tuesday.
The report did find some cause for optimism: "Some critical changes have been made to the administration of elections around the country that could head off the type of problems that caused chaos four years ago."
But some voters may be in for a surprise and encounter problems getting their ballots cast and counted because "the expectation that the entire election system would be overhauled in time for Nov. 2 has clearly not been met."
With all the attention on new equipment after the punch-card debacle in Florida in 2000, the biggest problems this year may be verifying the status of thousands of first-time voters and whether valid votes get counted.
The Help America Vote Act, passed in 2002, is designed to help states pay for expensive statewide registration databases and new machinery, but the money has been slow in coming, the report found.
In addition, that federal law mandated that every state must allow provisional ballots so that anyone whose status is in dispute can cast a vote that's later verified, but it was left up to the states to set the rules.
The result is a patchwork of rules and fierce litigation in Missouri, Ohio and Florida -- three swing states -- over whether a ballot must be cast in the proper precinct to count or simply anywhere in the jurisdiction. In the last few days, a federal judge ordered Ohio to follow the looser rule, while the Florida Supreme Court sided with state officials on a stricter, precinct-only rule.
The survey found that 28 states use the stricter rule while 17 states, including the swing states of Pennsylvania and New Mexico, allow the looser standard.
Provisional voting disputes, coupled with a big increase in new voters, "could be the hanging chad of 2004," said Doug Chapin, director of the Election Reform project.
And because of the Florida experience, armies of lawyers for both major parties are ready to fight over every issue in a tight election.
"Process and politics are now inextricably linked, and no problem is too small," Chapin said. "Each side has as its theme song The Who's 'Won't Be Fooled Again."'
There's another danger to watch out for Nov. 2, the report warns-- a shortage of well-trained poll workers, who must deal with new technology and disputes over voter identification.
To relieve the pressure on Election Day, 35 states allow some form of early voting, and Oregon has a mail-in system.
This year, 29 percent of the electorate will be voting on electronic touch-screen systems, but some states backed off implementing them because of the "raging debate over security," the report found.
Only Nevada has an auditable paper trail in place to double check its electronic system. California has a provision allowing any voter who distrusts the electronic touch-screens to vote on a paper ballot.
Some voters in such key states as Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and West Virginia still "punch chad" on punch-card ballots.
And voters in New York, Connecticut and Louisiana still use old lever machines that are prone to breakdowns and "under votes," with no choice recorded in some contests.