Few could forget the weekslong hubbub over vote-counting in Florida in 2000 that led to a recount, a Supreme Court ruling and a national debate about the veracity of the system by which voters cast their ballots.
But 12 years later, the voting system is still far from fail-proof, according to a state-by-state report released Wednesday.
Almost half of states use voting systems for overseas and military voters that could be susceptible to hackers, says the report by Rutgers Law School and two good-governance groups: Common Cause Education Fund and the Verified Voting Foundation. Dozens of states lack proper contingency plans, audit procedures or voting machines that produce backup paper records in case something goes wrong.
Colorado, Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina are least prepared to catch problems and protect voter enfranchisement, the study showed. Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Vermont and Wisconsin are in the best shape.
Twenty-four states let overseas and military voters return their ballots through electronic means - such as the Internet, email or fax - that could fall victim to hackers or infringe on the right to a secret ballot. When the District of Columbia experimented with an online voting system in 2010, hackers broke in and changed votes to fictional characters.
"People understand cyber security threats," said Susannah Goodman of Common Cause. "They understand you don't send an email with your Social Security number as the subject line."
And yet, Goodman said, states are asking people to send in emails with the subject line "Here's my ballot."
In 16 states, at least some polling places are using electronic voting machines - largely put in place to eliminate the hanging-chad issue of 2000 - that don't produce a paper record as a backup. That means there's no independent way to verify the voter's intention if the machine malfunctions or a recount is necessary.
Dozens of other states lack proper contingency plans in case electronic machines fail, or audit procedures to make sure ballots don't disappear or emerge out of thin air.
With Election Day less than four months out, there's little states can do to correct the problems before Nov. 6. But the report's authors said many states are already moving to ensure their voting systems have as little vulnerability as possible.
No states are moving to buy new paperless voting systems, and many states are replacing aging equipment with more verifiable systems. More states also are making audits part of their standard postelection routine.