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Votes of no confidence

Federal legislation that would regulate voting machines and tighten election procedures in every state could spell trouble for California election officials.

“There are provisions in this bill which are onerous to the point that I don’t think any election would ever get certified,” Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters Conny McCormack told Capitol Weekly.

The bill would require election officials to provide a “voter-verified paper ballot” to all voters in the United States, including voters who use touch-screen voting systems. That’s a big hurdle for many states, which would need to retrofit or toss out their current voting systems. California is ahead of the curve, already requiring paper ballots in every county. The legislation also would prohibit the use of wireless communications devices in voting systems and would open voting software source s to the public.

McCormack is one of many California voting officials who are concerned that HR 811, the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007 introduced by Congressman Rush Holt, D-New Jersey, will cost too much and potentially cause chaos for the November 2008 election.

Even California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, a skeptic of touch-screen voting systems, said she’s concerned about the costs and short deadlines of the Holt bill. She testified before the House Committee on Administration election subcommittee in Washington, D.C., last week.

“If poll workers don’t know how to operate the machines, it’s simply not possible to have an election without a large segment of the population being disenfranchised,” Bowen told the subcommittee. Bowen hasn’t taken an official position on the legislation. She has initiated her own “top to bottom” review of voting machines in the state–prompting still more complaints from local election officials.

The Help America Vote Act, passed after the Florida election chaos of 2000, allowed three years for state and locals to put its requirements in place. The Holt bill, which puts the burden on states to make changes before the 2008 general elections, McCormack argues, “could de-stabilize the elections process, erode voter confidence and increase the likelihood of challenges to the legitimacy of electoral outcomes.”

“There aren’t a lot of things that we can do that don’t have the potential to cause chaos,” agreed Steven Weir, the top election officer in Contra Costa County and president of the California Association of Clerks & Election Officials. Re-jiggering elections, he said, “is not like trying to turn a battleship. It’s like trying to turn a whole battle group.”

“California is in a better position than most states,” countered Susannah Goodman with Common Cause, one of the main organizations backing the Holt bill, “because you already have this requirement for paper records.”

Indeed, California put laws in place in 2004 requiring a voter-verifiable paper ballot. But one question is whether or not the paper used by touch-screen systems will be good enough to meet the requirements of HR 811.

Those counties that do use direct-record electronic machines now use a type of thermal printer paper. It’s easy enough to use, but it’s sensitive to heat and doesn’t store very well.

Some counties are trying to find ways to keep the records in climate-controlled storage rooms. But under the Holt bill, election officials worry that they might have to do away with thermal paper altogether in favor of “archival quality” paper. Vendors may need to come up with a new kind of paper and printer system, and that would need to be vetted by election officials.

“It just has so many changes, so fast,” said Jill LaVine, registrar of voters of Sacramento County. “There’s not enough time to do the research,” said Lavine.

LaVine also is concerned with language in the bill that requires the computer at the heart of any voting software to be open to the public. In California, such is on file with the secretary of state and is available to election officials only. The Holt bill would require such code to be disclosed to anybody–reporters, voting-rights activists and average citizens.

“I agree with the public, that we want to know how it works,” said LaVine. At the same time, she also understands resistance from vendors. “Why would I want to give away the store?”

The bill also would require election officials to change the way they do the routine hand-recounts of ballots. In California, each registrar counts 1 percent of the vote by hand, to make sure it squares with the results of the machine tally. The Holt bill would require hand recounts of between 3 percent and 10 percent, depending on the closeness of the vote.

The Holt legislation is moving fast. It is expected to be passed out of the House Committee on Administration on Thursday, March 29.

McCormack wrote a letter to the Committee last week that, “consensus has emerged among local election officials across the country that many of the bill’s far-reaching provisions are simply unworkable.”

But Goodman with Common Cause said that the concerns of California election officials are not falling on deaf ears. “I think there are concerns about the implementation and funding. And I think they are being heard,” Goodman said.

Contact Cosmo Garvin at cosmo.garvin@capitolweekly.net


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