House Gets New Voting System

Posted July 8, 2009 at 6:28pm

Sixteen years ago, several Members claimed the House’s electronic voting system incorrectly recorded their votes. Their complaints were quickly forgotten.

But six years later, problems arose again when a computer error caused then-Rep. James Barcia (D-Mich.) to be counted as a 436th Member by the name of “Arcia.— And in 2007, the voting system’s main display went blank, forcing officials to stop votes for almost an hour for repairs.

Such failings are the reality of any computer system, but House officials are hoping to decrease their frequency by replacing the voting boards for the first time in more than 30 years.

In August, officials will replace the chamber’s two summary boards. A new main display board will follow later.

“What we’re trying to do is upgrade and make it much more technologically sound,— House Clerk Lorraine Miller said in a recent interview. “And that will be to the Members’ advantage and to the chamber itself.—

Costing about $5 million, the upgrades will mean brighter LEDs, a more reliable display and more information about floor proceedings. But Miller emphasized that it wouldn’t be fail-proof — “hiccups,— she said, are unavoidable.

The current system is “very fragile, and it has a tendency to fail on occasion,— she said. “With this new technology, we hope to avoid some of that. There will be problems with it, but we don’t think nearly as many or as severe.—

The main display board was originally installed in 1976. Since then, there have been few upgrades. In 1987, the doors and wiring harnesses were replaced, and in 2003, the vote indicator lights were replaced with LEDs.

But much of it still harks back decades. When a Member leaves or dies, House employees have to manually rearrange the name plates. It can take an entire day.

With the new board, the clerk will be able to make all changes by computer. The LEDs will be brighter, longer-lasting and more energy-efficient. When something fails, it will mean changing pixels rather than a light bulb. A day of repairs could be decreased to hours or minutes.

The summary boards — originally installed in 1973 — will get similar improvements. The boards now show only a short description of legislation and a tally of the votes; the new screens will be able to display more information.

Bill Schaeffer, president of International Roll-Call, the company installing the boards, said the screens may have several “sequences— of displays. For example, one sequence would show a short description of the bill being considered and a vote tally, while another would show a longer description.

LEDs have also changed since they were last installed in the House displays, Schaeffer said. Before, they were lit at full power; now they can be adjusted so they last years longer. For example, the Virginia House of Delegates runs its LED displays at 30 percent, he said.

But both Schaeffer and Miller said the updated boards will fit in with the House decor.

“It’ll be without destroying the ambiance we already have in the chamber,— Miller said. “It will flow right into what we have.—

The summary boards are set for testing and installation during the August recess. The timeline for the main display is less certain; installation could take six to eight weeks, during which the House would have to be out of session.

So far, Members have been enthusiastic about the change, and House appropriators readily included the $4.6 million for the main display upgrades in the fiscal 2010 spending bill.

The $500,000 for the summary boards was appropriated in the fiscal 2009 omnibus.

At a hearing earlier this year, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) — who heads the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch — called it a “reasonable expenditure.—

“I think it’s clear that in the House of Representatives for the last two or three years, we’ve had a number of different problems with the voting system,— she said.