Paper Trail Bill May Get Vote This Week

Posted August 31, 2007 at 5:59pm

A long-awaited and controversial bill requiring electronic voting machines to produce a paper record by the 2008 elections is expected to reach the House floor this week.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and more than 200 others, is scheduled to be taken up by the Rules Committee on Wednesday and likely will be voted on before the week’s end, numerous House aides confirmed.

Holt’s bill, which attempts to prevent a recurrence of alleged and still-unsolved voting machine failures in Florida’s 13th district, would require voting equipment to produce an “individual voter-verified paper ballot” of each vote cast.

After months of negotiating with a smorgasbord of special interests, House Democrats claim they have reached a workable compromise they hope will secure the votes necessary for passage. One House aide, who declined to be named, predicted the bill had “no holdups” and that Holt, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and other House leaders had worked through the concerns of the disabled community and convinced state and local officials they won’t be left with the tab.

“We’ve provided the funding to take care of the problem; basically, allow the states to make the needed upgrades to the machinery —and in the past, states have shown they can do this relatively quickly,” the aide said. “There’s enough time and resources to do it.”

According to a circulating floor manager’s amendment obtained by Roll Call, $1 billion would be set aside to pay for upgrades in the runup to 2008, and another $100 million per year would be set up to audit the machines.

But the bill also mandates that by 2012 all voting equipment must “automatically” deposit ballots into a “secure container,” technology that is not yet invented and that likely would result in scrapping every existing piece of voting equipment in the country.

By simply throwing cash at the problem, critics of the measure claim, lawmakers not only may waste billions of dollars, but they also may create an even more complex web of requirements than the maze-like Help America Vote Act of 2002, which many localities are still struggling to comply with.

David Beirne, executive director of the Election Technology Council, a trade association for voting equipment manufacturers, said his group’s members are asking that “a couple of minor adjustments” be made in the version of Holt’s bill that is currently in circulation. For one, he said, the phrase “individual voter-verified ballot” does not provide explicit guidance on the type of equipment to be used in separating one ballot from another.

“Holt’s office implies it can mean anything including taking a pair of scissors to a thermal wheel-to-wheel printer cartridge,” Beirne said. “Election officials are not going to be very keen about applying a pair of scissors to what is going to become the ballot of record.”

Beirne, who expressed dismay at lawmakers’ apparent lack of input from voting machine manufacturers, called the provision requiring automated vote casting by 2012 “wishful thinking.” He also said the group’s members continue to be leery of language requiring them to publicly disclose the inner workings of their machines.

“Both the [Federal Aviation Administration] and the [Federal Communications Commission] bring Sprint and the airline industry to the table and they are directly involved in the development of rules. As of yet, we’re not involved in any part of the process,” Beirne said.

He added: “We’re also not familiar of any industry that has to fully disclose their source code. The original Holt bill and amendment … make it very permissive as to who can look at the source code.”

Election Systems & Software, the company that manufactured the equipment at the center Florida’s ongoing 2006 election dispute, was successful in blocking access to its computers’ source code in court earlier this year.

The court’s decision not to allow access to the code ultimately ended Democrat Christine Jennings’ quest to determine whether the company’s equipment led to 18,000 “undervotes” in last year’s election. Since then, House Democrats have worked out a deal to share the information with the Government Accountability Office, which now is investigating whether machine failure led to now-Rep. Vern Buchanan’s (R-Fla.) 369-vote victory over Jennings.

Other critics of Holt’s bill argue that it is little more than a patch job, born out of a highly charged political environment. And even more, they say, not only was it written with little input from those in the trenches, but also with overly ambitious timelines and lofty expectations for still-nonexisting voting machines.

“For 2012, every jurisdiction in the entire country would have to buy voting equipment that doesn’t exist yet; there isn’t a jurisdiction in the country that has equipment they could keep,” said Alysoun McLaughlin, associate legislative director with the National Association of Counties.

McLaughlin, who described the bill as a “hard sell,” said her members are more comfortable with the process in the Senate, where leaders appear less trigger-happy with jamming through the paper-trail legislation, sponsored in that chamber by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), just to get something on the books before next year.

“Sen. Feinstein has been very clear that it would be unreasonable and counterproductive to try to change voting equipment before the 2008 election,” she said.

With the deadline perhaps already expired for implementing changes for the 2008 presidential election, McLaughlin said it is still possible that more states may decide to act on their own and draw up their own paper-trail requirements, legislation that may muddy the waters even further if and when Congress steps in.

“You’ve got 30 states that already have,” she said.