SAN DIEGO - Come November, more Americans might cast their ballots on paper than in any other 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 touchscreen 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 be relying 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 be using old-fashioned pull-lever machines.
In fact, because of growth in the electorate over the past decade, expansion of absentee voting rules, and expectations of high turnout for the contest between Barack Obama and John McCain, some experts are predicting 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 creates extra stress on an already-strapped election system. Cash-poor counties will have to spend tens of millions of dollars printing ballots. Voters, many of them first-timers, may wind up confused by the ballot formats and frustrated by long lines of people waiting to use the scanners. And counting all the paper could hold up the results of the election.
"After 2000, there was a widespread revulsion about paper - everyone had the mental image of the guy cross-eyed looking at the punch-card ballot," said Doug Chapin, director of the watchdog organization Electionline. "But there's no silver bullet. You're trading one set of problems for another."
All states but Idaho have junked the punch-card ballots that caused so much trouble in Florida. But many plan to use paper ballots that require voters to fill in ovals with a pen. The ballots are then read by digital scanners.
Unlike touchscreens, paper can't malfunction or be hacked into. But it has to be printed, shipped and securely stored before and after Election Day. Counties already paying to warehouse electronic machines will have to buy reams of card stock, print extras in multiple languages, pay for delivery and eventually destroy the unused ballots.
In counties that are on their third system in three presidential contests, officials are retraining workers in how to use the equipment and demonstrate it to voters. Broward County, Fla., which was caught in the punch-card maelstrom in 2000, has produced guides showing voters how to feed their paper ballots into the scanners.
Other counties making the switch, including some of California's largest, are planning to collect ballots at polling places and pay workers overtime to feed them into industrial-size scanners at central offices.
None of that is likely to prevent voters from making other sorts of mistakes, such as filling in the wrong oval or using the wrong color pen.
"A lot of officials are in damage-control mode because they're going to try to limit the problems of switching to paper," said Mike Alvarez, an expert in voting technology at Caltech in Pasadena. "You will have ballots not showing up, being printed wrong, the litany of mistakes voters make with these ballots, and then there's incredible pressure in a crowded polling place for people who are trying to make their decision."
As Brace put it: "Paper is traditionally the device that the public is really good at screwing up."
In 2000, about 61 percent of registered voters lived in counties that relied on some form of paper ballot, whether punch-cards or fill-in-the-oval forms, according to Election Data Systems. Only 13 percent of voters lived in counties that used touchscreens or other e-voting devices; the rest used pull-lever machines.
With fewer than 100 days until Nov. 4, the first concern for many election officials is making sure they will be able to get all their ballots printed between the time the national, state and local slates have been selected and Election Day.
California, the nation's biggest electoral prize, with more than 16 million people registered to vote, abruptly outlawed most electronic machines last summer, creating a potential crunch in the highly specialized ballot-printing industry. San Diego contracted with a Washington state company after local businesses said they couldn't produce the 3.5 million extra ballots in the two-month window.
Many paper ballots may wind up in the shredder.
Last week, Ohio's secretary of state ordered all 53 counties using electronic machines to print paper ballots to accommodate voters in November who opt out of e-voting. A similar order during the primary resulted in the pulping of more than a million unused ballots after only 14,484 voters asked for them.