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Voting on Voting

Published: May 16, 2007

(As published in Talking Points Memo)

Seven years after Florida’s hanging chad debacle, three years after voting irregularities in Ohio, and six months after 18,000 votes disappeared in a House race in Sarasota, Congress is finally moving to fix the country’s electronic voting systems. Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) has introduced legislation to mandate improvements to ensure that our voting machines are secure and accurate, and the bill is on the fast-track in the House. It may come to a vote next week.

This is a significant breakthrough.

In less than five years, the vast majority of Americans have gone from using punch card and lever machines to having their votes counted by electronic touch screens and optical scanners. These machines promised to usher in an era of fast, reliable, and accessible voting. But they spawned doubt and suspicion, clouding the issue of voting systems in partisanship and conspiracy thinking.

In 2005, the Brennan Center put together a Task Force of distinguished scientists, voting machine experts, and security professionals to conduct the nation’s first methodical threat analysis of the major electronic voting systems. We concluded that the worries of activists and so-called conspiracy theorists indeed had some basis in fact. Every single one of the electronic machines we studied was vulnerable to security problems. In fact, someone could use a PDA to tamper with every machine in a polling place. Of course, that could be enough to swing a close statewide election without much fear of detection.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the major vulnerabilities can be corrected and guarded against with relative ease. We can ban wireless components in voting systems to make them less susceptible to attack. We can ensure that all of our machines produce voter-verified paper records and ban those that do not. And we can assure that election officials conduct routine post-election audits, comparing the paper trail to the electronic records to discourage tampering and detect it if it occurs. Congressman Holt’s bill addresses all of these fixes.

Unlike some other more divisive election issues, voting machine security and reliability is a goal lawmakers in both parties should rally around. Rep. Tom Davis, the top Republican on the committee that oversees election law, has cosponsored Holt’s bill. (Davis was chair of the House Republican campaign committee. He can’t be tarred as a RINO a “Republican In Name Only.") Florida’s GOP Governor Charlie Crist stood with Democratic Rep. Jerry Wexler in denouncing the state’s touch-screen voting and endorsing optical scan machines.

A key committee passed Holt’s bill last week. But storm clouds loom. Local election officials have expressed legitimate concern that the bill does not give states adequate time and resources to implement its mandates.

Others would use this bill as a vehicle for their own partisan purposes. Even as the myth of widespread voter fraud is being debunked in the wake of the U.S. Attorney scandal, some Republican members of the House have attempted to attach voter ID requirements to the Holt bill.

It would be a shame if partisan fearmongering derailed needed reform. Deadlines can be adjusted as this legislation moves forward, and appropriators can be held accountable if they fail to provide sufficient funds to get the job done. Controversial measures such as requirements for proof of citizenship or other onerous ID can be debated separately. In Congress, when something controversial is added to a widely agreed upon measure, it’s called a poison pill. If lawmakers let a fracas over ID derail this needed and commonsensical plan, then the next time Election Day rolls around – with the potential for miscues, miscounts, and polling place meltdowns – voters will know whom to blame.