Voter Confidence Act delayed in Congress
If passed, the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007, also known as H.R. 811, would require election officials to use voting machines that produce voter-verified permanent paper records for the 2008 national election and would make random, manual post-election audits routine. Advocates say the bill will ensure transparent, reliable elections and provide some money to purchase new equipment. However, opponents say the bill’s requirements are costly and usurp state and local governments’ authority.
Currently, the bill has stalled in the House. “[H.R. 811] has been slower to get on the House schedule than we would like, and that narrows the window for it to be implemented,” says Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., who sponsored the bill along with 220 co-sponsors. Holt says H.R. 811 is needed because there have been too many instances around the country where voting technology failed, such as the 2000 presidential election. “It is demonstrably not true that every county is doing a fine job, and that’s why we need federal legislation,” Holt says.
Problems with the June 6, 2006, primary election for county recorder in Pottawattamie County, Iowa, illustrate the need for mandatory manual audits, says Pamela Smith, president of San Francisco-based VerifiedVoting.org. After a well-known incumbent apparently lost to a relatively unknown college student, the county auditor, suspecting an error, asked for a manual recount. The recount revealed that the voting equipment supplier failed to program the machines’ scanners for ballot rotation of candidate positions, calling into question every race on the ballot and requiring a recount in each case. Two of the races were reversed.
Had officials expected a close race, nothing would have appeared amiss and no recount would have been ordered. “Iowa doesn’t currently have an audit requirement, but if [H.R. 811] was passed, all states would do this as a matter of course,” Smith says.
Still, several state and local government organizations, including the Washington-based National Association of Counties (NACo), say the bill is “fraught with problems” and have been pressing legislators to hold off on bringing H.R. 811 to the House floor for discussion. “H.R. 811 is a much bigger reach than simply requiring a paper trail,” says Alysoun McLaughlin, NACo’s legislative director for finance and intergovernmental affairs. McLaughlin says the bill aims to remove state and local officials from deciding how to run their own elections, replacing their freedom of choice with an impractical one-size-fits-all standard. And, because H.R. 811 allows for an unrestricted private right of action in federal court, McLaughlin says the bill will open the door to frivolous lawsuits.
Had the bill sponsors sought advice from the elections community, they would have realized the one-size-fits-all requirement for all recounts by hand would be impossible to implement in some jurisdictions, says Judy Beaudreau, Vernon, Conn., registrar of voters. Vernon began using optical scan voting equipment in 2001. When a recount is required, paper ballots are run through the machine a second time, a five-hour process that would take days if it had to be done by hand, and which would be subject to human counting errors, Beaudreau says.
McLaughlin says it would be both costly and burdensome to implement H.R. 811 before the 2008 national election. “A verifiable ballot is the direction equipment is going in, but it takes time for vendors to make and test equipment properly,” McLaughlin says. “There’s still a lot of heavy lifting to go on this bill.”
Annie Gentile is a Vernon, Conn.-based freelance writer.