GOP Balks at Request for HAVA

Posted February 12, 2007 at 6:33pm

House Republicans are balking at Democratic calls to hand over $800 million to states for new voting machines and poll worker training, arguing that the move may put the cart before the horse by purchasing expensive — and perhaps soon-to-be outdated — voting systems before oft-cited failures are thoroughly examined.

“What [lawmakers] really need to do is sit down and figure out what [voting system] is going to work best,” said Salley Collins, a spokeswoman for Rep. Vernon Ehlers (Mich.), the House Administration panel’s top Republican. “Until that’s done, I really don’t think funneling $800 million into [the Help America Vote Act] is the wisest use of taxpayers’ dollars.”

Last week, House Administration Chairwoman Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) wrote to Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) asking that the committee dole out the Election Assistance Commission’s remaining budget authorization. The agency is a clearinghouse created as part of Help America Vote Act of 2002 to pay out federal money that must be overseen at the state level.

“HAVA authorized $3.9 billion for FY2003–FY2005 to pay for the improvement of elections,” Millender-McDonald said in the letter. “To date, Congress has generally appropriated more than $3 billion. However, while the EAC has distributed all the appropriated funds to the states, states desperately need additional funding to continue implementing HAVA requirements in the coming years.”

According to Janice Crump, a spokeswoman for House Administration Democrats, the remaining money would be used to “improve the overall election process,” including voting machine purchases and maintenance, voter databases and poll worker training.

“It’s like getting a checkup to your car,” Crump said. “You may need to buy new parts or get the oil and fuel systems flushed to make sure your car runs efficiently.”

An initial EAC review of state reports to date suggests voting equipment upgrades and the development of state voter databases have been the two most expensive HAVA requirements.

But Ehlers refused to sign the letter, citing myriad — and long-documented — issues surrounding all but the most basic paper ballots, according to Collins. And continuing to dump federal money on the agency likely would do little to stem what allegedly happened in places such as Florida’s 13th district during the previous elections.

“The ranking member was hesitant and did not sign the letter because it didn’t seem at this time appropriate to put $800 million into HAVA when it looks as though there is a potential for complete overhaul,” Collins said. “All the scrutiny with electronic voting machines in the Senate and the House — putting money into a program doesn’t make sense before Congress has a chance to investigate what voting systems will be best.”

According to Collins, during the past decade conventional wisdom concerning voting systems has gone nearly full-circle. So rather than continuing to shovel money on the solution of the moment, perhaps Members should explore what actually does and does not work.

“We had problems after the 2000 election, and people weren’t crazy about the punch-card system,” she said. “Then questions were brought up about optical scanning machines, so then you move to electronic [voting machines], but once you move to the electronic [voting machines], well, now people want to go back to paper [ballots].”

“What needs to happen is we need to sit down and say, ‘OK, what system is going to work?’”

What systems work best in a particular community, however, is an issue that is —and should be — decided at the local or regional level, according to EAC commissioner Donetta Davidson.

“It’s up to states to decide what type of equipment” works best for their voters, Davidson said. “One size doesn’t fit all.”

All sides of the debate will soon get their day. Legislation by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) requiring a “durable” paper record of votes cast was introduced with more than 150 co-sponsors. Hearings on Holt’s bill may provide a forum for Millender-McDonald, Ehlers and others to air their concerns about various equipment.

Perhaps the first to leap up with their concerns are states such as Georgia that would require the purchase of an entire new fleet of new voting equipment if paper trails are required.

“Some equipment can be retrofitted,” Davidson said. “If the machines are older, they can’t be retrofitted… It depends on when [states] bought them.”