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Congress Takes A Step Forward on Verifiable Voting

Congress Takes One Step Forward on Verifiable Voting

By Matt Renner
t r u t h o u t | Report

Thursday 10 May 2007

Legislation aimed at overhauling how people vote moved out of a Congressional committee Tuesday. The bill is intended to address problems that have hamstrung recent national elections.

US House Resolution 811 was drafted by Rep. Rush Holt (D-New Jersey) and has 212 current cosponsors. The bill was passed with two amendments by the Committee on House Administration. According to Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office, it's on a fast track to be voted on by the full House.

The bill is an amendment to the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which was passed after the debacle in Florida during the 2000 general election. HAVA funded the replacement of old voting systems and gave rise to a new generation of technology-based systems that have been proven untrustworthy. Most notable of these are the Direct Recording Electronic voting systems (DRE), which store electronic records of votes and use those records to tabulate election outcomes. Computer scientists have shown that elections employing these machines are not safe from hackers.

Holt's efforts have come under scrutiny from grass-roots activists and experts who have been deeply involved in election integrity. Many of these activists oppose the Holt legislation because it does not go far enough in ensuring that elections are secure. They seek further citizen oversight and a ban on DRE voting systems. But the bill has supporters in activist circles, including, Common Cause, and People For the American Way (PFAW). These groups point to the urgency of getting some kind of legislation passed that can be implemented before the 2008 elections.

While the bill does not ban electronic voting machines, it does require that all voting machines include a paper record for auditing purposes. If passed in its current form, the bill would require signs to be hung in polling places reminding voters to check the paper records for errors after they complete their ballots.

This voter-verification process is not sufficient, according to an election security insider on the front lines. John Bonifaz, constitutional lawyer and founder of the National Voting Rights Institute, is co-counsel in a lawsuit to challenge the result of the Congressional election in Florida's 13th district between Republican Vern Buchanan and Democrat Christine Jennings. The contest was decided by a mere 369-vote margin in favor of Buchanan. Investigations into the election results showed that roughly 18,000 voters in Sarasota County had apparently not voted in the hotly contested race. With a razor-thin margin of victory, a 13 percent undervote in Democratic-leaning Sarasota County could have cost Jennings the election.

Because Sarasota voters used DRE voting systems with no paper record, the election cannot be audited. According to Bonifaz, the voter-verified paper record requirement in the new Holt bill would not be sufficient to prevent future election problems like the one in Florida. Bonifaz points to a study by the California and Massachusetts Institutes of Technology that tested the accuracy and effectiveness of voter-verified paper trails. The study found that voters were very unlikely to recognize errors on the paper record after their electronic ballots were completed. According to Bonifaz, "with most voters not verifying their votes, most of those missing votes would still be missing - and with no way to recover them and derive voter intent."

People For the American Way President Ralph Neas praised the advancement of the Holt bill in a press release Tuesday: "If voting machine problems are a sickness, the Holt bill is good medicine. We must make every effort possible to ensure that an injustice like Sarasota never happens again ..." David Becker, senior counsel for PFAW, contributed to the drafting of the Holt bill. In response to the concerns raised by activists who oppose the Holt bill because it lacks a complete ban on DRE machines, Becker said "this will not be the last piece of election reform passed in history. It is urgent that a reform bill be passed now or else it will not be ready by November 2008."

Amendments were made to the Holt legislation in markup on Tuesday. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California) introduced two amendments that would allow more time for counties that already have some version of a paper record to comply with the new Holt requirements.

Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Massachusetts) attached an amendment that requires polling places to offer every voter the opportunity to use a paper ballot. At the time of this writing, it is not clear when or how these paper ballots would be tabulated.


Matt Renner is a reporter for Truthout.

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