RealTime IT News

Senator Introduces 'Disappointing' E-Vote Reform Bill

Florida Senator Bill Nelson, who last week called snafus during a recent election in his state "a mockery of democracy," has introduced a bill that would ban paperless voting.

Nelson, who represents the state that has come to symbolize election problems for its controversial handling of the 2000 presidential recount and a disputed congressional election in Sarasota in 2006, warned in a statement that, "if Congress doesn't get this done, I'm afraid our democracy could die from lack of legitimacy."

Nelson's bill is intended to shore up the nation's electronic voting system and restore voter confidence in the way all states record, tabulate and verify votes.

Specifically, Nelson's legislation would require all electronic voting systems, including direct record electronic (DRE) machines, to produce a checkable paper record.

It also would prohibit top state election officials from working on candidates' campaigns. In 2000, then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris oversaw Florida's recount while also serving as a top campaign official for GOP candidate George W. Bush.

But election integrity activists expressed frustration that the bill doesn't go far enough in ensuring that votes are counted accurately and that election results can be audited.

One activist, speaking off the record for fear of straining relations with key political figures, told internetnews.com that Nelson missed "an opportunity to do something really new and innovative. It's very disappointing."

No one on Senator Nelson's staff was available for comment at press time.

Nelson's bill is pretty much a companion to legislation filed in the House last week by U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, except for the ban on conflict of interest on the part of elections officials, which is not part of the Holt bill.

Another difference between the bills is that, while both require random audits of paper records against electronic tabulations in every congressional district, the Holt bill exempts states that have mandatory recounts under certain conditions.

"This is what we named 'The Get Out of Audit Free' card," said John Gideon, executive director of VotersUnite in an e-mail to internetnews.com.

Gideon said his organization supports many elements of both bills, such as the ban on wireless communications, requirements for disclosed source code and hand audits, as well as the mandate that testing labs be contractually independent from vendors.

But he said his group isn't endorsing either bill because "we believe we have a duty to call attention to the bill's unacceptable shortcomings and to call for the needed amendments."

The group wants legislation to ban the use of DREs and require the use of paper ballots. The bills just introduced only require a print-out of electronically-recorded votes, which Gideon's group calls an unreliable means of verification.

Voting system experts like Ted Selker, co-director of the CalTech-MIT Voting Technology Project, have noted that the vast majority of voters fail to check the print out against how they think they voted. In their view, that obviates the intended benefit of the system.

The election integrity groups also want greater citizen oversight of the audit process built into the law.

The Coalition for Voting Integrity of Pennsylvania, Black Box Voting, Florida Fair Elections, New Yorkers for Verified Voting and the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections have all expressed reservations over the bill.

There is also a lack of unanimity among election integrity activists over the use of DREs.

Advocates for voters with disabilities prefer DREs to paper ballots because DREs allow blind and otherwise physically challenged individuals to vote privately and independently. This may be why neither the Nelson nor Holt bill ban them.

But Warren Stewart, policy director for VoteTrustUSA.org, said that the two goals are not necessarily antagonistic.

"There's nothing about the direct recording of votes to computer memory that provides accessibility; it's the computer interface that provides that.

There's all kind of innovation possible in making the verification of paper ballots accessible. It's perfectly reasonable that it should be, but it doesn't require a DRE to do that," he told internetnews.com.

Last week, Nelson was the first witness heard during the Senate Rules and Administration Committee hearing on voting reform.

Other senators, including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who heads the Rules panel, are also expected to introduce voting reform legislation in the coming days.