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Return to paper ballots could be on horizon

By David Whitney - Washington Bureau

Published 12:31 pm PDT Friday, March 23, 2007

 

WASHINGTON - To deal with widespread concerns about the integrity of elections, a House panel is weighing controversial legislation requiring states to bring back the paper ballot as the official record.

 

Many, if not most, states are concerned that Congress is moving too fast because the pending legislation would take effect in time for the 2008 national presidential elections, with primary balloting beginning in January.

 

Only 17 states have voter systems that would be in compliance with the proposed law now.

 

The legislation has divided advocacy groups. State elections officials are opposed to it. County officials don't like it. Even among those who support the idea, such as California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, the consensus is that it will cost a lot more money than the cash-strapped Congress may be prepared to spend.

 

"Three hundred million dollars is not enough, especially for states with only touchscreen voting," Bowen said of the bill, introduced by Reps. Rush Holt, D-NJ, and Tom Petri, R-WI.

 

Florida, which is ground zero in the battle over fair voting because of the 2000 recount and the U.S. Supreme Court's declaring George Bush the winner, is moving ahead without federal legislation.

 

The state's Republican governor, Charlie Crist, told the House Administration Committee's elections panel Friday that he has proposed replacing the state's electronic voting system with an optical scanner system.

 

Under that system, voters would mark paper ballots that would then be scanned electronically for tabulation, but the real thing would remain to be counted and recounted if there was a dispute.

 

Crist said that if the legislature approves the system and funds it as he expects, it will be in force by next year and voters will be able to leave their polling places with full confidence that their ballot has been "counted, recorded, and available, if necessary."

 

Bowen told the panel that California has required a paper trail for electronic voting machines since 2004, and a mandatory 1 percent recount as a form of auditing since 2006.

 

But California has a mixed system that under the Holt-Petri legislation could require many counties to put in new equipment, and the length of time counties have taken to purchase such equipment has varied greatly - from a matter of a month or two in Placer County to more than a year in San Francisco County.

 

"The last thing any of us want is to truncate public review of any system, rushing through approval under the presumption that any solution is better than the current system, only to find ourselves back here in two or three years, having the same discussion all over again," Bowen said in a letter to the committee to accompany her testimony.

 

Bowen is one of only five state secretaries of state backing the legislation so far, according to an aide to Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, the elections subcommittee chair.

 

Other elections officials said they felt Congress was making them the bad guy.

 

"Elections officials feel like they are the targets in all this," complained George Gilbert, elections director of Guilford County, North Carolina.

 

And some on the elections panel said a return to paper ballots is no panacea.

 

"Paper ballots are notoriously susceptible to fraud," said Don Norris, public policy professor at the University of Maryland. "It takes far less skill to stuff a ballot box" than to manipulate the computer software in the electronic voting machines, he said.

 

Among the bill's skeptics is Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, the senior Republican on the panel even though the former California Assembly Republican leader is in his first year in Congress.

 

McCarthy said in an interview this week that he regards the legislation as an "unfunded mandate" because it will impose huge costs on the state for replacing voting equipment without sufficient federal reimbursement.

 

At the end of Friday's hearing, McCarthy said he thinks the bill should be slowed down. "I take it from all the witnesses that there's still a lot of work to be done on this," he said.

 

But Lofgren is a cosponsor of the legislation, and believes something can be worked this year.

 

"It's an aggressive schedule, but it's possible," Lofgren said.

 

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