Voting Reform Falls to the States

Voting reform is needed before the 2008 elections, but a key federal panel isn’t making the right decisions. The states should act on their own.

It’s now up to the states to embrace new recommendations from the National Institute of Standards and Technology to replace electronic voting machines that do not leave a verifiable paper trail—machines now in use across the country. The reason: NIST’s proposals were rejected yesterday by members of the Technical Guidelines Development Committee, a congressionally mandated panel that advises the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

The committee deadlocked six to six on the NIST recommendation to scrap voting machines that do not produce a paper record of each vote, according to The Washington Post. Eight votes were needed from the 15 member panel to approve the recommendations from the NIST.

The NIST cited the lack of paper trails of votes as “one of the main reasons behind continued questions about voting system security and diminished public confidence in elections.” The report also substantiates the fear that it would be very easy for “a single programmer [to] ‘rig’ a major election.” Specifically, the NIST urges that paper trails should be able to be drawn independently from the machine, leading to “software independence” in electronic voting systems.

That’s why the decision yesterday by the Technical Guidelines Development Committee is so puzzling. But state governments need not wait for the outcome of that preliminary vote, which may or may not eventually be embraced by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission when it unveils its own voting reform proposals next year (with implementation set 2009 or 2010). The states, which already look to the NIST for guidance, should act on the recommendations on their own.

Indeed, the repercussions are already obvious in Florida. Christine Jennings lost her bid for the House seat in the 13th District of Florida by the extremely slim margin of 369 votes to Republican Vernon Buchanan. Jennings, a Democrat, is suing not only Buchanan and Secretary of State Sue Cobb, but also the manufacturer Election Systems and Software Inc., alleging that the machines did not register as many as 18,000 votes cast for her. Jennings is also seeking a new election.

Other states reported problems as well in the most recent elections. Poll workers were unable to operate the voting machines in Illinois. In Pennsylvania, the machines were programmed to the wrong day, and some voters were turned away. In Arkansas, a re-tabulation of the machine-recorded election results has been inconsistent. Further problems can be found in a recent report by one of the Center’s affiliated organizations, The Century Foundation, titled “Where’s the Voter Fraud?” by TCF’s election reform expert Tova Andrea Wang.

The U.S. House of Representatives is addressing the urgent recommendation for paper trails with a proposed bill that would make the electronic voting system more reliable and secure. The new legislation would require paper trails alongside random audits of a fraction of the paper records to verify the accuracy of the electoral outcome, among other measures. The Senate is to follow suit: California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is to head the rules committee in the new Congress, has announced hearings on an identical measure.

The states, though, should not wait for Congress to act. Only 17 states currently require paper trails, and less than that require random audits. Florida, Pennsylvania, and Indiana—states with very close elections on November 7—don’t require either. Five states boast exclusively paperless electronic voting machines: Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, and South Carolina.

Our rights and freedoms, guaranteed by U.S. Constitution and state constitutions, are meaningless unless our votes are properly counted for each candidate. Democracy begins with the vote, and as the NIST had indicated, that vote is endangered. The Center calls on the states to act quickly on voting machine reform.

For more information on the most recent reports of voting problems in the states please go The Century Foundation’s Election Reform webpage.

For more information, please also see the following analysis by the Center for American Progress on election reform after the 2004 election: Election Reform: The Time is Now.

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