It's Time to Outlaw Paperless Electronic Voting in the U.S.

April 25, 2007

by David L. Dill,  

Four years ago, when I began publicly opposing paperless electronic voting, passing a Federal law to require voter-verified paper records (VVPRs) seemed an impossible dream. Rep. Rush Holt introduced such a bill in 2003, and another in 2005, but both bills languished in committee until the clock ran out.

The dream is now achievable, due in part to the unending stream of problems caused by paperless voting machines in recent years. HR 811, the third incarnation of the Holt bill, is a critical measure needed to protect the integrity of our elections, and it now has very good prospects of being enacted. It already has 210 co-sponsors in the House, where only 218 votes are required to pass it.

There are two provisions in HR 811 that are especially vital for restoring trust in American elections: A nationwide requirement for voter-verified paper records, and stringent random manual counts of those records, to make sure they agree with the announced vote totals. The requirements in the Holt bill are superior to those in almost every state of the country (there are now 22 states with significant amounts of paperless electronic voting, and only 13 states require random audits of VVPRs).

Success is not assured, however. The forces that have blocked previous bills are still active, especially vendors of current poorly performing equipment. Also, various concerns, reasonable and otherwise, have been raised about the bill by other parties.

Some groups insist on optical scan machines, which read and count hand-marked paper ballots, and are not supporting HR 811 because it still allows the use of touch-screen machines. However, under HR 811, those machines must be equipped with so-called voter-verifiable paper trails, which print a paper copy of the vote that can be reviewed by the voter before being cast. Most of the current generation of inferior paper-trail machines would not be allowed under HR 811, which requires the machines to preserve the privacy of voters and requires the VVPRs to be printed on high-quality paper. This will create a strong incentive for local jurisdictions to purchase optical scan equipment. Furthermore, HR 811 makes the paper records the official ballots of record in audits and recounts, and requires election officials to post a notice explaining to voters the need to verify their VVPRs.

I would personally prefer to see optical scan machines be used nationwide, if supplemented by equipment to allow voters with disabilities to vote privately. If groups objecting to HR 811 can cause such a bill to be introduced and line up the votes in Congress to get it passed, that bill will have my support. Meanwhile, those of us who have actually talked to Congressional staff have not seen any significant support for such a requirement. It seems that we have a choice between HR 811 or continuation of our current "Kafka-esque" paperless system (as a French politician recently described it).

Another small but noisy contingent is opposing HR 811, sometimes without revealing their true agenda, because they will be satisfied only with a nationwide system of hand-counted paper ballots. In theory, we could adopt hand-counting of all ballots. However, hand counting is rarely used now. It is politically unrealistic to believe that the overwhelming number of jurisdictions that have been using automated voting in various forms for 40 years or more are going to go back to hand counting. HR 811 does not prevent hand counting for those communities who want to do it, but it provides a realistic solution for the rest of us.

Some are troubled by the role of the Federal Elections Assistance Commission (EAC) under the bill. Like many others, I, too, lack confidence in the EAC as currently configured. But HR 811 gives only minimal responsibilities to the EAC. I can live with that if the other provisions of the bill are enacted.

Finally, election officials have expressed concern over whether the timeframe of HR 811 is feasible. On the one hand, I want passionately to avoid potential meltdowns in the 2008 general election, and I am not convinced that the possibility of simply purchasing optical scan equipment has been adequately considered by those jurisdictions currently using paperless electronic voting. On the other hand, it is obviously necessary to allow adequate time for implementation of the bill. Congress has heard all sides of this argument, and I am confident that they will strike the right balance. If the implementation date needs to be extended, I hope it will be done in a way to encourage earliest possible elimination of paperless electronic voting, so that the maximum number of voters will be protected in 2008.

HR 811 will no doubt change as it travels down the long, winding legislative road. With some luck, the bill will survive with the key provisions intact, and may even improve.

A good bill that becomes law is better than a great bill that doesn't. HR 811 will start moving soon. Please ask your U.S. Representative to support it.