By JIM ABRAMS 09.06.07, 2:34 PM ET
Lawmakers have come full circle after devoting more money to high-tech voting machines following the 2000 election debacle in Florida. They now say a return to the paper trails of old is the key to an honest vote, exasperating state election officials.
Legislation pending in the House would require a voter-verified paper ballot for every vote cast in national elections beginning with the November 2008 ballot. It also would require random audits in federal elections and specifies that the paper ballot is the vote of record in all recounts and audits.
Public confidence in the voting process is at an all-time low, said Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., the bill's chief sponsor. "I shudder to think what would happen with another election where millions of Americans don't believe the results," Holt said.
But his bill has been hit by a barrage of criticism from state and local election officials and election machine makers who contend the timelines are unrealistic, the audit process is overly cumbersome, the reliance on paper is too restrictive and the money allotted to replace existing systems, $1 billion, is insufficient.
"The ramifications of hasty action on this ill-conceived piece of legislation are immense and far-reaching," Donna Stone, a member of the Delaware House of Representatives and president of the National Conference of State Legislatures, wrote to House leaders Wednesday.
R. Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center of the National Association of Election Officials, said the bill was so objectionable that, if passed, he would recommend that state and local election officials refuse to run future federal elections.
A planned vote on the House floor Thursday was put off after the legislation met resistance in the Democratic-controlled Rules Committee, which sets rules for floor debate. "I really am scared we're waltzing off a cliff here," said Rules Committee Chairman Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., citing the need for more comprehensive election reform. It could come up on Monday.
Few were arguing against the need for Congress to restore integrity to the election system.
In 2002, Congress passed an election reform act approving nearly $4 billion aimed at correcting some of the technology and registration problems epitomized by the "hanging chad" dispute in Florida that left the outcome of the 2000 presidential election to a Supreme Court decision.
A 2006 study by the Election Data Services predicted 80 percent of registered voters would use optical scan or electronic voting equipment in that year's election. About 13 percent would use lever or punch card devices, it said.
But Holt argued that with the headlong rush to buy new voting systems, as many as 50 million voters in the 2004 election cast ballots on electronic voting machines that lacked a voter-verified paper audit trail. He said that included up to 1 million in the 10 largest counties of Ohio, where Democrats claimed that voting irregularities were pivotal to President Bush's re-election.
There was trouble again in Florida in 2006 after Democrats blamed touch-screen voting machine malfunctions for 18,000 "undervotes" in a House race won by the Republican candidate by 369 votes. The Florida secretary of state said an audit found no problems with the machines.
Holt argued that under his bill only six states - Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, South Carolina and Tennessee - which had no voter-verified paper ballot in 2006, would have to upgrade all their voting machines by 2008. Another 14 states would need partial changes.
The bill also would mandate that only durable, scannable, accessible paper ballots be used by 2012. Ballot marking machines must be able to deposit the ballots automatically into a secure container for later access. Direct recording machines must allow disabled voters to privately and independently verify the contents of the paper ballot printed out. Voters would be able to look at the actual printed record of their vote but would not get a printed copy, as with an ATM machine.
The measure also requires that random audits be conducted by hand count in 3 percent of precincts in all federal elections and would ban wireless devices, Internet connections and uncertified software in voting and tabulating machines.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a lead sponsor, said they had made late changes to the bill to meet some criticisms from states about funding and from machine manufacturers about providing outside investigators access to proprietary computer software. "I believe we have addressed as well as possible all reasonable concerns," she said.
But David Beirne, executive director of the Election Technology Council, which represents voting equipment manufacturers, said it normally takes 54 months to develop, install and train people in new machines, and, even with quick passage, meeting the 2012 deadline would be "a tall order."
He also urged caution on making paper the "official ballot of record," saying that, just as electronic machines can malfunction, paper is subject to printer jams and improper handling by poll workers.
Lewis, of the National Association of Election Officials, argued that "there is nothing in the marketplace today that will do what they want to do." He estimated that it would take $3 billion to $4 billion just to come up with the new equipment.
He and others did not dispute the need for better vote verification, but said they were more comfortable with a bill introduced in the Senate by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that has a more flexible timeline and sets rules for software inspection more acceptable to the industry.
The House bill is H.R. 811.
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