Senators Propose Funds for Paper Ballots to Back Up Electronic Ones

By Ian Urbina
New York Times
September 26, 2006

//www.nytimes.com/2006/09/26/washington/26cnd-ballots.html

WASHINGTON - Two Senate Democrats proposed emergency legislation today to reimburse states for printing paper ballots that can be ready at polling places in case of problems with electronic voting machines on Nov. 7.

The proposal is a response to grass-roots pressure and growing concern by local and state officials about touch-screen machines. An estimated 40 percent of voters will use those machines in the election.

³If someone asks for a paper ballot they ought to be able to have it,² said Senator Barbara Boxer of California, a co-sponsor of the measure with Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut.

Republican leadership aides were skeptical about the prospects for the measure. It would have to advance without opposition from any senator and then make it through the House in the short time available before Election Day.

Dozens of states are using optical-scan and touch-screen machines to comply with federal laws intended to phase out lever and punch-card machines after the hanging-chads confusion of the 2000 presidential election. Widespread problems were reported with the new technology and among poll workers using the machines this year in primaries in Arkansas, Illinois, Maryland, Ohio and elsewhere.

Local and state officials have expressed concern that the new systems might not be ready to handle increased turnouts. Election experts fear that the lack of a paper trail with most touch-screen machines will leave no way to verify votes in case of fraud or computer failure.

Last week, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Maryland, a Republican, joined the skeptics, saying he lacked confidence in his state¹s new $106 million electronic system and suggesting that state officials offer all voters paper ballots as an alternative.

The proposed federal bill would provide 75 cents for each backup paper ballot that local officials print. If ballots are printed for half the 27 million voters expected to use touch-screen machines, Ms. Boxer said, her bill would cost Washington no more than $10.1 million.

Barbara Burt, vice president and director of election reform programs at Common Cause, a good-governance advocacy group, said that the bill would have been stronger if it had required precincts to provide paper ballots in federal elections, but that it was a step in the right direction.

³Lack of funding has been the main excuse that local election officials have used to avoid implementing paper precautions,² Ms. Burt said. ³This takes that excuse away from them entirely.²

Ms. Boxer said ordering paper ballots in all elections would have been impractical.

³I think Big Brother dictating something to local jurisdictions is a big mistake, because they will balk at it,² she said. ³What we¹re saying here is that you run your own elections, and we are going to help you run it properly. If local officials don¹t take advantage of the option to take precautions, then they¹re the ones on the line.²

Brad Friedman, a liberal blogger and longtime critic of electronic voting, said that incentives to print paper ballots would help, but that without a federal mandate some voters would still have no choice but to use touch-screens.

On Thursday, the Committee on House Administration, which has a role in overseeing election procedures, will hold a hearing on whether to require that all voting equipment produce a paper record that lets voters verify how they voted.


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