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Restore Integrity to Federal Elections | The Nation

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Restore Integrity to Federal Elections

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Create federal standards to insure that the winner of an election is actually the person who received the most votes. Seems like a no-brainer. But some electronic voting machine manufacturers, election officials and activists have denounced the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007, which would create universal voting standards that would better secure our democratic process. The reasons opponents give for sinking the bill are ultimately unconvincing. The House is scheduled to vote soon on this measure. It is crucial that it pass now to insure widespread public confidence that the declared winner of the 2008 presidential election is the actual winner.

About the Author

Lawrence Norden
Lawrence Norden is counsel in the Brennan Center's Democracy Program and the director for the Voting Technology...

Introduced by New Jersey Democrat Rush Holt and Virginia Republican Tom Davis, the measure takes some basic yet critical steps toward improving the integrity and accuracy of federal elections. First, beginning with the 2008 presidential election, the new law would require that all voting machines produce a voter-verifiable paper record of each vote. This will give voters a chance to review the record of their vote and confirm that it was recorded accurately. If the final election result is disputed and a recount needed, the paper record would serve as the official ballot of record.

Just as important, the bill requires random manual counts comparing the voter-verified paper to the electronic tallies. A simple comparison of the paper record and the electronic record will help insure that programming errors and software problems did not cause the electronic voting machine to miscount the result. The importance of audits was documented in a recent Brennan Center for Justice report, "Post Election Audits: Restoring Trust in Elections," which showed that a paper trail itself won't alert officials to software problems. The only way we'll know that the electronic tally is wrong is if we use the paper audit to check it. The vast majority of states do not conduct these kinds of audits today--even in states where paper records are required or used statewide.

The new law also bans wireless devices, Internet connections, uncertified software and undisclosed software from being placed on voting and tabulating machines. Numerous studies have shown that wireless components are particularly vulnerable to manipulation because a person could send or receive signals from a voting machine and possibly trigger an attack on the electronic voting system with something as common as a personal digital assistant. A ban on wireless components has been adopted by only two states. This provision would insure that unnecessary and insecure wireless components are not used on any voting machines, anywhere in the United States.

Holt-Davis also has the common-sense remedy of preventing voting machine vendors from choosing the labs that test and certify their machines. In the future, the Election Assistance Commission will randomly assign labs for machine certification, thus taking away any pressure the labs may have felt to approve machines that vendors were paying them to certify.

The final components of the Voter Confidence Act will give jurisdictions time and money to upgrade their machines. Certain types of machines will be allowed to be used now through the 2012 election, but by 2012, all electronic voting machines will have to meet even higher security and accessibility standards.

Why the fuss? Voting machine vendors want to sell as many of their systems as possible, with as little regulation as possible. But does that desire outweigh the desirability of making sure their machines can work without any outside interference? Election officials argue there's not enough time or money to make the mandated changes. But their legitimate concerns are addressed in the most recent version of the bill--by extending deadlines and increasing the federal dollars requested to support its implementation (though public pressure may need to remain vigilant to make sure Congress appropriates this money).

Some election activists complain that the bill does not go far enough. While I too would like to see even more rigorous security measures in place nationally, we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The Holt-Davis bill sets a minimum standard for what needs to be done now to make federal election results far more secure and reliable. Nothing in the legislation prevents states from adopting their own, stronger election standards. What some activists fail to address in their opposition is what happens if it doesn't pass: another federal election where tens of millions of Americans will vote on machines without voter-verified paper records and many millions more will vote on machines that produce paper records that are nothing more than decoration. That might make some voters feel better, but the paper records will never actually be used to check the accuracy of the electronic totals.

The Holt-Davis bill is not a panacea. Democracy functions by making compromises. However, the world's longest-lasting democracy will certainly be in jeopardy if the people lose their faith in the integrity of our elections. Congress can take a step toward insuring the security and integrity of federal elections by passing the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007.

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