November 25, 2005
By Russell Max Simon
Journal Staff Writer
A state law to reform the election process isn't being well-received by those who must implement it.
Santa Fe County Bureau of Elections Director Denise Lamb recently told the Santa Fe County Commission that the smorgasbord of election changes rolled out by the state Legislature earlier this year has been "an enormous unfunded mandate."
Lamb said that paying for new voting machines required by the law would mean getting rid of hundreds of machines purchased in the past five years— machines the county is still paying off loans on.
"We've got voting machines that are less than five years old that we spent half a million dollars for," Lamb said.
But the financial picture painted by Lamb is only part of a massive debate over voting machines occurring in clerks' offices across the country. The debate is about the so-called "voter verifiable paper trail," which critics of electronic voting machines say is necessary to ensure the integrity of elections.
A key section in New Mexico's new law requires counties to purchase machines that have "a voter verifiable and auditable paper trail" by the end of 2006. The law is currently under review by an election task force that will suggest changes for the upcoming legislative session.
In the meantime, Lamb's office and others across the state have been scrambling to comply both with the state law and the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed by Congress in part to deal with problems stemming from the contested 2000 presidential election.
The federal law requires every polling place to have at least one handicap-accessible voting machine. Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron said in a telephone interview that New Mexico was given $14 million to comply with HAVA.
Whether the counties will have to buy new machines to comply with the state law, however, is still up in the air, Vigil-Giron said. That resolution won't come until after the legislative session, provided the issue gets on Gov. Bill Richardson's list of legislation for consideration.
Still, finding funding for the new machines has already leaped to the top of many counties' list of priorities. The New Mexico Association of Counties listed getting funding for new machines as one of its top lobbying priorities for the upcoming session.
The association estimated that outfitting counties with machines that provide a "voter verified paper trail" could cost between $14 million and $34 million, depending on which machines are deemed certified. Vigil-Giron has estimated the cost at $38 million.
Vigil-Giron said the decision about which machines to buy would be left to the individual county clerks, but that so far the only machine that complies with the bill is the ES&S AutoMark. That choice is likely to please disabled groups, who picked the AutoMark as their overwhelming favorite in tests earlier this year. [emphasis added by wheresthepaper.org]
Robert Stearns, an activist with Voter Verifiable New Mexico, a group that marched outside the Roundhouse in support of a paper trail during the last legislative session, said his group supports the AutoMark.
But Lamb said the state's new election laws were "politically driven," and that "what satisfies someone politically is not always what's best for the voters."
She said it was just as easy to tamper with a paper trail or a paper ballot as it is with an electronic touch screen.
"There was a time when elections conducted with paper ballots in this county were so corrupt— that's why they invented a mechanical machine, and the electronic machine is just a refinement on that," Lamb said.
The "optical scan" machines that Santa Fe County uses now print out a summary of voting at the end of the election day, but don't print anything like a receipt for the voter. The device looks much like a scrolling receipt under a glass screen— the voter can look at it and verify it, but cannot take it home.
Lamb took issue with new state law in a 10-page critique for the election task force. Her section on the voter-verified paper trail lays out a long list of questions that she said still need to be addressed.
"Is the printer producing the 'paper trail' to have a seal, as do voting machines and ballot boxes? If so, how do precinct workers deal with paper jams? Who is authorized to open the printer and under what circumstances? Can 'paper trails' be impounded? Do the 'paper trails' from a single machine need to remain intact— in other words, how are they handled for a recount?"
Stearns admitted there are still kinks to be worked out, but said that a machine that can be checked for accuracy via a paper trail remains essential to fair elections.
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