William Jackson | E-voting assurance efforts make progress

Cybereye

William Jackson

Federal elections could become more fair and reliable if a bill now before the House requiring a verifiable paper audit trail for voting systems is passed into law.

The Voter Confidence and Increased Accountability Act would amend the Help America Vote Act of 2002 and would codify many of the protections now included in voluntary guidelines for voting systems. The bill originally was introduced following the 2006 elections, in which complaints of inadequate polling stations, equipment malfunctions and disappearing votes on electronic machines raised the possibility that thousands of voters were disenfranchised. Reintroduced as H.R. 811 in the current Congress by Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and supported by more than 200 co-sponsors, the bill has been passed out of the House Administration Committee and put on the calendar for consideration by the full House.

The meat of the bill comes right up front, with the requirement that voting systems 'use or produce an individual, durable, voter-verifiable paper ballot'before the voter's vote is cast and counted.' The paper ballot could be the original ballot or it could be produced by an electronic voting machine, but it would be the official ballot in all disputes, recounts and audits. The bill would prohibit electronic systems from having wireless network connections or any connection to the Internet and would require a manual audit of random precincts in most contested elections.

Running elections, even for national office, traditionally has been the responsibility of the states. The federal government's first foray into this area came with the Help America Vote Act, passed to help clear up problems that plagued the presidential election of 2000, but many of that law's provisions are voluntary. The Voter Confidence Act would continue to defer to state laws in most cases but would establish some minimum national requirements for elections to federal office.

Objections to the bill, other than from states that already have spent millions of dollars on electronic systems that do not meet its requirements, have primarily to do with timing. State election officials say they would not have time to comply with the law. The bill provides $3 million for a study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology on the best way to meet the needs of the disabled, non-English speakers and the illiterate in a paper-based environment. But advocates for the disabled say it would be several election cycles before paper ballots could catch up with the convenience and access now offered by touch-screen or other electronic voting systems.

Granted, it is unlikely that any meaningful changes can be made in time for the 2008 election, and work remains to make a voter-verified paper trail as convenient as a touch screen for some users. But these are minor quibbles. Deadlines can be extended or waived, and the temporary inconvenience experienced by a blind or illiterate voter needing assistance to verify a paper ballot is a small price to pay for the assurance that the ballot will be accurately counted.

Under the Voter Confidence Act, many key provisions of those voluntary guidelines would become mandatory, and we would finally have some national standards for conducting elections of national officials. That is the least citizens should expect from their elections. Whether I agree with him or not, I have a right to know that the person claiming to be my president was elected honestly, no matter where the votes were cast.

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

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