Voting Reform

Sunday, August 19, 2007

THE VOTER Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007 recently underwent some changes after discussions between its sponsor, Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.), and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). While these are a good start, still more changes are needed to make sure the bill does what it's intended to do.

The bill would require paper trails, external audits and stronger accessibility requirements for federal elections. These are important goals in achieving greater integrity and reliability in the voting process, particularly after election foul-ups in 2000 and 2004. But election officials nationwide are still arguing that the bill has unrealistic deadlines and is overly prescriptive.

The bill requires all states by November 2008 to have some type of paper trail on votes cast. Election officials in states with paperless voting machines fear that they can't get the equipment approved by their state legislatures; procure the machines; meet state-mandated machinery testing standards; adequately train their workers and put on public demonstrations with the new equipment -- all while conducting various primary, state and local elections on the old equipment -- in just over a year. Mr. Holt's own state voluntarily decided in 2005 to retrofit its touch-screen machines with printers and is struggling to meet its 2 1/2 -year deadline.

Even if states meet the 2008 deadline, the requisite haste and corner-cutting could produce their own missteps; the bill might inadvertently cause more disenfranchisement than it would solve. If Congress is going to order a complete overhaul of elections nationwide, it should give states enough time to do it right. The bill also requires states to purchase by 2012 voting technology that is not yet on the market; pushing back the 2008 deadline might thus keep states from having to buy new equipment twice.

States are also concerned about the manual auditing requirements. We agree that external audits will make the process more accountable, but they can be done with more flexibility than is laid out in the bill (particularly since manual counts have been shown to be less reliable than electronic counts). There's also the problem of money. The $1 billion the bill authorizes for equipment may not fully cover costs for related training and administration. And that money may not even be appropriated, if the underfunding of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 is any guide. Some have suggested amending the bill to loosen requirements if full funding doesn't come through, a change Mr. Holt opposes.

Changing the 2008 deadlines -- or at least providing waivers for states that are really in trouble -- and loosening the audit requirements would be good fixes to the House bill. A similar but less publicized bill, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), embraces the same principles as the House bill but with more flexibility.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company