A Paper Trail Toward Chaos?

By David S. Broder
Sunday, May 13, 2007

A bill that is headed for early action in the House of Representatives threatens to create a major controversy over the conduct of the 2008 election.

Blessed with the wonderful title of the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007, the legislation has the valuable goal of ensuring that there is a paper trail to verify the accuracy of touch-screen and electronic voting systems.

But it has created an uproar among state and local officials, who say its provisions are so unworkable they could create chaos at the polls next year.

The measure is a response to problems that marred last year's election, with disputes in several states and districts about the accuracy of reported voting tallies on new touch-screen systems. One controversy, involving 18,000 potentially missing votes in Sarasota County, Florida, is still unresolved.

Democrats, whose House candidate in that Florida district was the apparent victim of the possible machine malfunction, are understandably eager to enact remedial legislation. The bill, written principally by Reps. Zoe Lofgren of California and Rush Holt of New Jersey, came out of committee last week and is slated for early action on the floor.

But it has run into a buzz saw of criticism from the people who manage elections. The National Association of Secretaries of State, facing a division in its own ranks, has taken no position.

But the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Association of Counties have declared its deadlines impossible and the funding inadequate.

In a letter to members of Congress, the two groups said, "This legislation would exacerbate, rather than assist states and counties in addressing, these challenges which could lead to disastrous unintended consequences in the 2008 presidential election."

The state and local officials added that "[e]ven if the requirements of this legislation were realistic within the specified deadline, state and local governments are understandably skeptical of promises of federal funding for a new, multi-billion-dollar federal mandate for additional election technology and practices."

Aides on the House Administration Committee, where the bill was written, told me that some deadlines have been adjusted -- including for the type of paper trail used -- and a $1 billion authorization was added to the bill. Whether that money is ever appropriated is something no one can guarantee.

The measure also has been criticized by advocates for people with vision limitations or other disabilities. The American Association of People With Disabilities said that the earliest the provisions could be carried out effectively would be 2014 -- not next year's primaries. Otherwise, the group said, it would represent a step back from the guarantees of equal access to the voting booth contained in the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA). "It takes away our right to a secret ballot," a spokesman told me.

The committee aides who briefed me said they were not swayed by those concerns because the bill has been endorsed by People for the American Way, a liberal group that they somehow designated as speaking for the disabled.

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