Ballot Boxing

Monday, May 21, 2007

VOTES SHOULD count and be counted. Agreed. But the devil is in the details.

The House will soon consider a bill introduced by Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.) that aims to make all ballots voter-verifiable and recountable and to set up a system for audits, or partial recounts, of ballots in every federal race. Those are important goals, especially given recent high-profile election foul-ups. But the bill's provisions are overly prescriptive and in some cases impossible to implement in their current form.

Under the bill, all states would have to print paper ballots that voters can verify. States that have no paper trail would have to put paper balloting in place by November 2008, and states that have some paper trail but whose ballots are not "durable" (e.g., flimsy thermal paper printouts from touch-screen machines) must have a durable paper trail by 2010.

Election officials in many states say that the 2008 deadline is unreasonable. While several states have converted their balloting systems in less time, some states require many steps of state approvals, testing and training. Georgia, for example, cannot change its ballot system without the approval of its state legislature, which doesn't reconvene until January. Even states that have already decided to switch to paper ballots say that they need more time for a smooth transition (among them Maryland, which just voted to switch by 2010).

Haste invites disaster, especially in a presidential election. Currently only one technology exists that meets the requirements of this bill: optical scans, which, like touch-screen systems, have imperfect records. More time should be allowed for development of new products, such as durable paper printers for touch-screen machines. More time is especially needed for states to comply with the bill's accessibility requirements; no existing machine meets them and also is accessible to all disabled voters.

The bill also requires tiered audits, or partial recounts of every race. States can substitute their own audit systems, subject to special approval, but all audits must use paper ballots and be manual. These requirements are unnecessary. Paper is not foolproof, as Florida and Ohio have demonstrated. The important principle is that an audit be external to the electronic system that does the initial tally.

The federal government's capacity for getting election reform wrong is obvious: Hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of equipment that this bill would trash is only a few years old and was purchased to comply with the last federal election mandate, the 2002 Help America Vote Act. Given the inadequacies of that bill, upcoming federal mandates should grant states maximum flexibility in overhauling their election systems to achieve what everyone wants: greater integrity, real and perceived, in elections.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company