More paper ballots forecast

Come November, some experts predict, more Americans will cast ballots on paper than in any election in U.S. history.

That wasn't supposed to happen. If everything had gone according to the government's $3 billion plan to upgrade voting technology after the hanging-chad fiasco in Florida in 2000, that sentence would read “electronic machines” instead of paper.

Instead, thousands of touch-screen devices are collecting dust in warehouses from California to Florida, where officials worried about hackers and, fed up with technical glitches, have replaced the equipment with scanners that will read paper ballots.

An Associated Press Election Research survey has found that 57 percent of the nation's registered voters live in counties that will rely on paper ballots this fall.

The number of registered voters in jurisdictions that will rely mainly on electronic voting machines has fallen from a high of 44 percent during the 2006 midterm elections to 36 percent. (Much of the rest of the electorate consists of voters in New York state, who will use old-fashioned pull-lever machines.)

With growth in the electorate, expansion of absentee voting rules, and expectations of high turnout for the contest between Barack Obama and John McCain, some experts predict a record number of Americans will cast ballots on paper this year.

“More people will be using computer-read paper ballots than at any other time in the nation's history,” said Kimball Brace, head of Election Data Services, a consulting firm. “As you get more registered voters and more people in the pool, it exacerbates this bigger issues of paper.”

In 2000, about 97 million registered voters lived in counties that relied on some form of paper ballot, Brace said. That figure is expected to top 100 million this fall, according to the AP data.

The return to paper adds stress to an already-strapped system. Cash-poor counties will have to spend tens of millions of dollars printing ballots. Voters may be confused by ballot formats and frustrated by long lines. And counting all the paper could hold up the results.