Washington Long lines, faulty machines and new voting rules could mar Election Day throughout the country, warn several groups that study and monitor elections.
With control of Congress at stake, even a small blunder Nov. 7 has the potential to escalate into a crisis similar in scope to the 2000 election.
"The ingredients are there," said Dan Seligson, who edited an independent report detailing the potential troubles.
¢ Electronic machines that could fail or be hacked.
¢ Stricter voting requirements that already have sparked lawsuits.
¢ A divided electorate that could make many races across the U.S. very close, putting added pressure on an already imperfect system.
"The worst software in an election is often the human brain," said Seligson, whose nonpartisan organization Electionline.org predicted "the possibility - if not certainty - of problems at polls nationwide."
The doubts come at a time when election officials had hoped to ease lingering concerns from the 2000 election. This year, several new voting rules set by Congress in 2002 go into effect, including easier access for disabled voters.
But modernizing American elections has been difficult.
A requirement that all states create a database of voters has been delayed or plagued by technical problems.
In Florida, for example, the auditor general this summer found a state database of voters could include duplicates and other inaccuracies. And in New York, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit this spring because the state did not fix its system quickly enough.
Efforts to move the system beyond the dreaded hanging chads have seen problems, too.
Last year, an elections supervisor in Leon County, Fla., caused an uproar when a test by his office found that optical-scan voting machines were vulnerable to tampering.
In Maryland's primary this year, votes in one county were delayed because a poll worker forgot starter cards for touch-screen machines.
"We have introduced some very good improvements to the system, but there hasn't been enough time to work the bugs out of these new improvements," said Mary Wilson, president of the League of Women Voters.
Wilson said her nonpartisan organization is especially concerned with new state laws requiring people to show more identification when they vote. The goal is to cut down on voter fraud, but Wilson said that problem is minuscule.
"It's done under the guise of reform, but they (the ID laws) actually create more hurdles to voting," she said. She contends that the new rules hurt minorities, the poor and elderly, who may not have easy access to these IDs.
New research shows the ID requirement is fueling further distrust among black voters, already scarred by the 2000 election.
According to the Pew Research Center, almost one-third of blacks today have little or no confidence in the voting system. More than three times as many blacks than whites do not think their vote will be counted accurately.
And much of that distrust, civil rights leaders say, can be traced to such actions as ID laws.
In the last six years, the number of states that require voters to show some form of identification has doubled to about two dozen, according to Electionline.org.
Florida and Indiana are two states that force voters to cast provisional ballots if they cannot show valid photo IDs.
Florida lawmakers recently changed the rule. Previously, a voter without proper identification could sign a form and cast a regular ballot.
A voter who casts a provisional ballot has three days to show a proper ID to election officials. If that doesn't happen, then election officials will compare the voter's signature with one on file and determine whether it is legitimate.