By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, February 19, 2007
Efforts are intensifying in Congress to pass legislation that would require electronic touch-screen voting machines used in federal elections to provide paper trails that could be checked in the case of a recount.
The new momentum is the result of lingering concerns about the machines as the 2008 presidential primaries fast approach, as well as strong support for changes by the new Democratic majority, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Rules Committee, taking a leading role.
"We are closer to paper-trail legislation than we have been before," said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, an elections clearinghouse.
"Democrats are committed to election-reform legislation that requires all voting machines produce a paper trail," said Brendan Daly, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
The work at the national level echoes moves in many states. Often under pressure from voting-rights groups, 27 states have decided to require paper trails.
Last month, Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida went a step further, asking the legislature to pay for replacing touch-screen machines by next year with optical-scan devices, which read paper ballots. Virginia and Maryland are considering similar moves.
Florida has special significance because it was home to the recount dispute in the 2000 presidential election that began the national focus on how Americans vote. In response to that election, Congress passed a law in 2002 that provided billions of dollars to the states to replace outdated voting machines.
The new, high-tech machines were in many cases easier to use and more accessible for disabled people. But a coalition of computer scientists and voting-rights groups argued that the touch-screen devices without printers were vulnerable to tampering and that results could not be verified if they broke down.
In Congress, Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.) has introduced legislation to require paper trails and audits that test the paper results against the electronic tally, among other things. The bill has nearly 200 co-sponsors, and Holt wants it to take effect before the first primaries in January. Feinstein plans to introduce a similar bill soon.
"In basic terms, it would reestablish the principles of reliability and auditability," Holt said. "Citizens are disturbed that they feel they can't rely on the results of the election."
Weighing heavily on the minds of Democrats is last year's congressional race in Sarasota, Fla. Congress has seated Republican Vern Buchanan, but Democrat Christine Jennings says the Electronics Systems & Software touch-screen machines failed to count 18,000 votes that were cast for other offices but did not indicate a vote for Congress.
Without a paper record, there is no way for the machine to do a recount; Jennings has asked in court for access to the machines' source code -- the inner workings of the software that runs the machines -- to see whether there was a glitch. So far, she has not received access and has filed a protest with the House Administration Committee.
"Imagine what would happen if a similar undercount occurred in a swing-state election in the presidential contest and there was no independent means of verification," Feinstein said during a hearing on election administration this month. She asked government auditors to probe the Sarasota case.
Not everyone agrees paper trails are a panacea. Daniel Tokaji, assistant law professor at Ohio State University and associate director of its election-law program, said Holt's bill's focus on paper trails reflects a desire for a simple fix.
"It could well create more problems in terms of both creating post-election litigation and creating administrative problems in counting these paper strips," Tokaji said. "We know they can be compromised, torn, crumpled," and have printing problems, he said.
While Congress considers voting machine legislation, the Election Assistance Commission, the federal agency that helps states run elections, is taking a more direct role in testing the machines before they are used.
In the past, an association of state election directors had certified testing labs on a volunteer basis. That approach generated concerns that labs would use varying standards and would not be subject to sufficient oversight.
These concerns were heightened last month when it was revealed that a Colorado company had been temporarily banned from testing equipment, after authorities said it was failing to exercise proper quality control.
Now the Election Assistance Commission will certify labs in consultation with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
"It's the first time the federal government has ever been involved in testing voting equipment and, with NIST recommending their accreditation, that puts a more stringent position on the labs to meet all of the qualifications," said the chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, Donetta Davidson. "That definitely puts more credibility in the process."