Free New Mexican


Paper ballots back on track


By BARRY MASSEY | Associated Press

January 12, 2006


New Mexico plans to move to a paper-ballot-based system for its elections across the state and the change could be in place by the November general election.


Gov. Bill Richardson said Thursday he will propose legislation that requires a paper-ballot voting system in all counties. He's proposing that lawmakers allocate $11 million to help pay for needed software and machines that tabulate the ballots.


Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron and Attorney General Patricia Madrid support the switch to the paper-ballot system.


Also backing the change are some activists in the state who oppose the use of electronic-voting machines. They said the proposed voting system will be more reliable and provide a paper trail for post-election auditing of results.


"This is tremendously good news for the grass-roots election-reform community. We have been fighting for paper ballots for quite a long while now," said Paul Stokes of Corrales, who's served on a state task force looking at election problems.


"Paper ballots are the best way for voters to know that their votes aren't somehow disappearing into the bowels of a voting machine."


Currently, 11 counties use the proposed system in which voters are given paper ballots and those are tabulated by an optical scanner machine. All


33 counties use that paper-ballot system -- sometimes referred to as a "marksense" system -- for mail-in absentee voting, said Ernest Marquez, state elections director.


Voters fill in a space on the ballot for their chosen individual. The voter then feeds the ballot into a tabulation machine. For handicapped and language-minority voters, there's a machine that will mark the paper ballot after voters select the candidate.


The completed ballot can be fed into a tabulation machine by the voter.


Richardson and other supporters said the goal was to have a standardized voting system in New Mexico that can help restore public confidence in elections by providing a paper ballot, which should assure people their votes were cast properly.


"The plan I am proposing makes the most sense and resolves many of the problems that have plagued New Mexico elections for far too long," Richardson said at a news conference. "I am tired of New Mexico elections always at the end of every election cycle being the subject of scrutiny and sometimes derision nationally."


There's a lawsuit pending in district court in which a number of voters are asking a judge to block the use of electronic-voting machines, which some counties had in the 2004 presidential election.


The lawsuit contends the machines malfunctioned, allegedly losing votes and switching voter selections to candidates other than what the voter had intended.


The lawsuit was brought against the secretary of state and several county clerks, including those in Bernallilo, Doņa Ana, Chaves, San Juan and Santa Fe counties.


Lawyers for voters in that case praised the announcement by Richardson and other state officials. They support the proposed paper-ballot and optical-scanner voting system.


"If the Legislature goes ahead with what the governor has recommended, then we will be a state in which the voting public can be confident that the results of the election are going to be verifiably accurate and that their votes can be counted properly," said John Boyd, an Albuquerque lawyer.


Lowell Finley, a California-based lawyer, said the lawsuit wasn't nullified by the governor's announcement. The Legislature still must approve the proposal and there's a question of how quickly the proposed paper-ballot system can be implemented, he said.


If lawmakers approve the proposed legislation, Marquez said, it's possible the paper-ballot system could be operating across the state in November -- depending on whether enough ballot-tabulating machines, software and other equipment can be quickly purchased.


There are about 1,500 polling places across New Mexico. The state has about $9 million in federal money that will help buy machines.


Under a state law enacted last year, voting machines purchased after July 1, 2005 must have the capability to provide a "voter verifiable and auditable paper trail."


A pending question in the lawsuit is whether some counties should be allowed to purchase a certain type of electronic-touch-screen voting machine to comply with the federal requirement for having machines accessible by the disabled.


Š2006, Santa Fe New Mexican, all rights reserved.



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