Questions Swirl on Voting Reform

Posted March 24, 2004 at 6:16pm

Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), who defeated Republican candidate Deforest “Buster” Soaries at the polls in 2002, is now hoping to beat his former opponent to the punch in an effort to address the perceived problems with security of new electronic voting systems.

But just who will end up as the fix-it man of elections remains to be seen.

Amid alarming reports that electronic voting might not necessarily be as secure as once thought, Holt last year introduced the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2003.

His bill would amend the 2002 Help America Vote Act by requiring that voting systems produce a permanent paper record that could be verified at the time the vote is cast and preserved in case a later manual audit is deemed necessary.

The chairman of the newly formed Election Assistance Commission, who happens to be Soaries, announced this week that the EAC will hold hearings within 45 days on the hot topic, which has grabbed the attention of everyone from comic Bill Maher to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

“You never know what’s going to happen” with electronic voting, comedian Maher mused on a recent episode of his HBO program. “Well, I’ll tell you what’ll happen. Some 13-year-old hacker in Finland is going to hand the presidency to Kylie Minogue! You thought the 2000 election was bad. Wait until the next one is decided by a customer service rep in New Delhi.”

All joking aside, questions about the integrity of electronic voting have been generating significant concern, reflected in recent newspaper ads run by the advocacy group TrueMajority.org, headed by Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream co-founder Ben Cohen.

The ads feature the screen of a Diebold Election Systems computer, a prominent manufacturer of election equipment, with a time bomb and the words “System Error! Vote Data Lost.”

Cohen told The Associated Press that a “reasonable, inexpensive solution to this problem” would be to have the machine print a receipt, “like an ATM does.”

Holt agrees and said that unless each and every vote can be verified, no one can truly be sure that fraud or software errors aren’t tainting election results.

“It will leave a cloud hanging over every election that can’t be erased,” Holt said. “The cloud will linger and the losing candidate and their supporters will always harbor that nagging thought, ‘Maybe I was wrong.’

“You can see, in the case of the [2000] presidential election, how damaging it is to our democracy.”

Why All the Fuss?

In July 2003, scientists with Johns Hopkins and Rice universities published highly critical findings that showed how hackers could easily sabotage Diebold’s electronic voting systems to the extent that they could fix the outcome of an election.

Stanford University professor David Dill is so skeptical of electronic voting that last fall he urged California voters participating in the gubernatorial recall election to avoid polling places equipped with touch-screen terminals and vote by paper absentee ballot instead.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s disclosure last fall that Diebold Systems CEO Walden O’Dell is a top fundraiser for President Bush and had sent a letter to potential donors that mentioned his commitment to “helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the Republican next year” heightened concerns.

So did Florida’s first election of 2004, a local election to fill a vacancy in the statehouse seat, when it was revealed that 134 of 10,000 Broward County residents who signed in at the polls actually failed to vote — in an election that was won by just 12 votes.

What happened to the votes of those 134 Floridians remains a mystery to this day and one that has exacerbated concerns over the apparent limits of touch-screen voting, where there is no paper trail available to verify an election’s results.

Such problems have attracted the attention of high-profile lawmakers like Clinton. She and Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) are in favor of legislation requiring that machines print a paper record of all votes — which is similar to Holt’s legislation.

Congress or Commission?

But as lawmakers propose a legislative remedy to election problems, some Members are not-so-gently urging their colleagues to let the EAC take the lead on the issue.

“There are proposals in Congress to address this issue, but it is up to the commission to review this subject,” said Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), the ranking member of the House Administration Committee.

“Congress should not mandate a one-size-fits-all solution for the states, without any examination of this issue by the EAC and the National Institute of Standards of Technology, as outlined by HAVA.”

House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — all key sponsors of the HAVA — have also rejected Holt’s solution to the paper-trail issue.

But through dogged lobbying of his colleagues, Holt has managed to get 128 co-sponsors, including seven Republicans, to back his bill.

“It hits home with people who run for office,” Holt said. “I’ve asked some of my colleagues, ‘Do you know any candidate for office who would sign a waiver waiving their right to recounts?’ I say, ‘If you don’t pass my bill that’s just what you’ve done.’”

One Democratic aide, however, said that before Holt or others use “tape, string and Band-Aids” to try to fix what they believe ails new electronic voting systems, they ought to let the EAC take a stab at doing its job.

“What the heck did we get HAVA together for, if we’re just going to come up with a [legislative remedy],” said the staffer, who noted that the new EAC commissioners and members of their board of advisers have significant experience in these areas and ought to be the ones to examine the problem and its solutions.

But Holt contends that the EAC, no matter how well-intentioned, only really opened its doors in the past couple of months and expecting the fledgling agency deal with such issues is placing an unfair burden on it.

“The EAC Commissioners themselves were not appointed until December 2003, and to this day there is no Technical Guidelines Development Committee,” Holt and Graham argued in a recent “Dear Colleague” letter.

“Even if it were, it is not required to produce guidelines until nine months after its members have been appointed. Even if it released its guidelines tomorrow, the guidelines are voluntary, as determined by HAVA’s authors, and could be changed with the stroke of a pen.”

Opponents of Holt’s efforts said the unfair burden would be on the states, if his bill was to pass, and that implementing new election procedures so close to the 2004 elections would create havoc for states.

Activists representing disabled and minority voters have also sounded alarms about Holt’s efforts, arguing that his proposal would undermine key provisions of HAVA dealing with disability and language minority access.

Holt rejects such claims and noted that the Justice Department issued an opinion last October that “confirmed the legal soundness of what the bill seeks to mandate.”