The New York Times

May 16, 2007



The Unkept Promise on Voting


Congress has done a terrible job of regulating electronic voting: It allowed A.T.M.-style voting machines to proliferate without requiring them to produce a paper trail that can be audited to ensure that the results are accurate. That has meant wasted time and money for the states, confusion for voters, and questionable election results. Fortunately, the nationís delinquent lawmakers have a chance to set things right ó through a bill introduced by Representative Rush Holt, Democrat of New Jersey, that would finally impose a paper trail requirement. There are some details that need fine-tuning, but Congress should move quickly to pass it.


After the 2000 election debacle, Congress gave the states large grants to replace faulty voting machines, including the kind that produced hanging chads. But in too many cases, states and localities rushed to buy electronic voting machines that do not produce paper records. Voters have to trust the numbers they spit out on election night, but the numbers cannot be independently verified, and that is unacceptable.


Aside from intentional vote theft ó which is not hard to do on paperless electronic voting machines ó glitches are all too common in these machines. A disturbing one that keeps occurring is ďvote flipping,Ē in which machines record a vote for one candidate as a vote for his or her opponent.


While Congress looked the other way, many states responded to popular demand and imposed their own paper trail requirements. More than half, including such large ones as California, New York and Ohio, have adopted this critical reform. But some still have not, which means that a presidential election could be decided by votes cast on paperless electronic voting machines.


Mr. Holtís bill would require a voter-verified paper ballot in all federal elections, which means that every vote must be recorded on a piece of paper that the voter can examine to ensure that it was properly recorded. It would also require that a suitable percentage of the paper ballots be audited to verify the tallies produced by the machines. The bill allocates $1 billion for the upgrades, and has other important reforms, including tougher requirements for the testing labs that certify voting machines, which have been rife with conflicts of interest.


In the Senate, Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, is putting together a parallel bill. Hers is expected to go further in some areas, by including such reforms as barring secretaries of state, who count the votes, from participating in partisan politics, and requiring fairer procedures for purging voters from the rolls. Since Congress gets around to reforming election law so rarely, it makes sense to include these.


The hardest issue is likely to be deadlines. Mr. Holt would require some of the states that still do not have paper trails to put them in place for the 2008 presidential election. He is right to push them to act quickly, and to make money available as soon as possible. But some states may rightly feel that they would be inviting chaos if they rushed to comply. They should be allowed to apply for partial or full waivers, with the understanding that they still must push forward as quickly as possible.


Congress vowed to fix the nationís election system after the 2000 vote. Mr. Holtís bill, with some modifications, would go a long way toward keeping that promise.


Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company