New House Bill Calls for Vote Machine Paper Trail

Posted February 6, 2007 at 6:44pm

With Democrats promising not to intervene in a still-contested Florida House election until after the case filters through the court system — a resolution that is still months away, by most estimates — more than one-third of the House is attempting to avoid a similar meltdown the next time voters go to the polls.

More than 140 Members sponsored a bill Tuesday requiring voting machines in federal elections to produce a paper trail.

“Florida is Exhibit A,” said Rush Holt (D-N.J.), the primary sponsor of the bill and a frequent critic of unverifiable voting equipment, speaking of the disputed 369-vote victory by Republican Vern Buchanan over Democrat Christine Jennings.

“Even those who think Vern Buchanan should be seated for the rest of this term … even they recognize that there is a cloud hanging over that election that cannot be removed [and] questions that cannot be answered,” Holt said.

Holt’s bill would authorize $300 million to “require a voter-verified paper ballot for every vote case,” requiring electronic voting machines — such as those used in Florida’s 13th district and elsewhere — to produce a paper record that could be recounted. Emergency ballots also would be required if voting machines malfunction or a human error occurs — a nod to Maryland’s primary in November, when some Montgomery County voters were left scratching their heads after software used to boot voting machines went missing.

“There are any number of reasons [voting] machines might fail, but you shouldn’t be turned away,” Holt said.

Holt’s bill also would require more random audits in close races and inspection of voting machine software. And it seeks to prevent conflicts of interest among vendors and tightens restrictions on the documenting of voting equipment.

The bill’s main provision, requiring all voting equipment to produce a “durable” paper record, is front and center in the ongoing fight over Florida’s 13th district. Even though Jennings maintained that glitches in the electronic ballot resulted in an “undervote” of 18,000 votes, Buchanan was declared the winner after a state audit and was seated in Congress soon after the new year.

In addition to going to court to seek to overturn the results, Jennings has filed a formal complaint with the House Administration committee, which has the final word on the chamber’s membership.

There was just one problem: Votes cast on electronic voting machines used in the contest simply disappear into the ether once the voter leaves the booth, providing little recourse for either side.

In the Florida court case, the campaign is still entangled in pre-trial wrangling with Electronic Systems & Software, maker of the machines in question, over how the manufacturer’s equipment works, David Kochman, a Jennings campaign aide, said Tuesday. Kochman does not expect the case to go to trial until the spring. Until a judge rules, House Administration aide Janice Crump confirmed Tuesday that the House Administration panel is not planning to intervene.

Although Democratic leadership appears to be taking a wait-and-see holding approach with Florida’s 13th district, it seems to be all systems go with the bipartisan bill. Holt and co-sponsor Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), parts of whose district were at the center of alleged voting irregularities in the 2000 presidential election, said House Democratic leaders, as well as many rank-and-file Members, support the measure. Holt also is confident the new equipment and requirements could be operational in time for the next election.

“We have not obtained a full scheduling commitment … but [during last week’s House Democratic] retreat this got quite a bit of discussion in the corridors,” Holt said. “It’s something that will move quickly.”

Wexler added: “Rush and I have had direct conversations with Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader [Steny] Hoyer (D-Md.), with [Democratic Caucus Chairman] Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) — all three are 100 percent supportive of the effort and understand that it needs to be done now.”

On the Senate side, the Rules Committee will begin looking into concerns about electronic voting machines at a hearing today. According to Howard Gantman, an aide to Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a companion version to Holt’s bill is being drafted, but it is not expected to be introduced for at least one week. Jennings is expected to testify at today’s Senate hearing.

A Holt aide said the House sponsors hope the two versions would not contain substantial differences that may need to be worked through.

“They’ve been working off of our draft,” the aide said. “It’ll be extremely close.”