By Heidi Bruggink
April 12, 2007
Eyeing the passage of Rep. Rush Holt’s (D-N.J.) election reform legislation, election officials are protesting what they believe is a poorly planned, even dangerous, set of changes.
The Voter Confidence and Increased Accountability Act of 2007, which boasts more than 200 bipartisan cosponsors, appeared to be sailing toward confirmation before Congress adjourned for Easter recess. However, the House Administration Committee vote was postponed unexpectedly after election officials from across the country testified before the Elections Subcommittee and scores of others contacted their representatives predicting problems that could make the 2000 and 2004 elections “look like the proverbial walk in the park.”
“It was moving forward like a runaway train,” a media relations manager at the National Association of Counties (NACo), James Philipps, said. “Then suddenly it was like, wait a minute — counties have something to say.”
No one disputes the good intentions of the legislation, which would amend Article III of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) by requiring a voter-verified permanent paper ballot. However, NACo and election officials harbor misgivings with its mandate requiring audits of 10 percent of all votes, which could result in significantly delayed results and a timeline that leaves little opportunity to train election officials and poll workers. Further, the scheduled implementation occurs after many state legislatures have adjourned for the year.
“The unintended consequences of this could create complete electoral chaos,” the registrar-recorder for Los Angeles County, Conny McCormack, said. “It hasn’t been examined closely enough.”
The act also requires states to purchase and implement new electronic voting equipment using undeveloped technology just two years after they did so to comply with HAVA requirements.
“If passed, H.R. 811 will literally render millions of dollars worth of election equipment useless,” Keith Cunningham of the Allen County (Ohio) Board of Elections said.
“The commission agreed to purchase the equipment [to comply with HAVA] through a loan, and we are still paying for the system,” Brooke County (W.Va.) Clerk Sylvia Benzo said. “How can I justify [this] to the citizens?”
An associate legislative director at NACo, Alysoun McLaughlin, urged legislators to “take a look at the lessons of the Help America Vote Act” before attempting to pass additional election reform laws.
“With HAVA, there was a three-year window, and that timetable proved to be extremely optimistic,” she said. “2008 is entirely unworkable.”
Holt spokesman Matt Dennis said the lawmaker believes “the current timetable is workable” and “the importance of this legislation makes it essential that we get this in place for the 2008 election.”
Dennis also said the bill, Holt’s third iteration of election reform legislation, is the result of years of revision and study.
“At every stage [Holt’s] been soliciting the advice of election officials, voting activists, disability rights activists and other interested parties,” Dennis said. “He’s taking a lot of that advice and incorporating it into the legislation, and that’s reflected in this latest version.”
Philipps said that he shares Holt’s concerns but stressed, “state and local officials need to be at the table in shaping the language.”
The concerns of county officials have given some lawmakers pause.
“I support the objective of election accountability, and am committed to ensuring that American voters have complete confidence in our country’s voting systems,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said. “However, after hearing from state and county election officials from across the country, I am concerned with a Washington one-size-fits-all approach that could disenfranchise disabled voters and create unrealistic and costly requirements on state and local jurisdictions.”
Dennis dismissed worries about the bill’s progress, saying delays “are to be expected as it moves further along and people start to pay more attention to it.” He pointed to the bill’s popularity in the House: Of the 200 cosponsors, none publicly have rescinded support since election officials voiced their concerns.
NACo hopes that even if the legislation succeeds in the House, the Senate will reconsider its implications.
“It’s too easy for the House to move forward on a bill and bump the hard questions to the Senate,” McLaughlin said. “We’re facing that challenge.”
An identical bill in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), has stagnated in the Committee on Rules and Administration since being referred there Feb. 13. McLaughlin said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) “has indicated that she will introduce alternate legislation and has solicited our feedback.”
“The next few weeks are critical,” Philipps said. “We’re hoping for a good result.”
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