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Legislation may turn into local election officials' 'worst nightmare'

June 16th, 2007 12:00 am by J. H. Osborne

BLOUNTVILLE - Sullivan County's electronic voting machines have been used for only three elections, but they might be mostly a thing of the past - a half-million dollar thing of the past, at that - by the time voters go to the polls for next year's presidential election.

A bill working its way through the U.S. Congress could be "the worst nightmare" of election officials, Sullivan County Administrator of Elections Gena Frye said Friday.

If approved, the Holt Bill (House Resolution 811, or H.R. 811) could require every voting precinct in America to provide a "voter verifiable paper trail (VVPT)" no later than the 2008 presidential election, Frye said.

But the concept of a paper trail isn't what's keeping election officials awake at night - it's the prospect of doing so by making paper ballots the norm on election day.

"Can you imagine the lines at the polls if we go to paper ballots?" Frye said. "It's an election official's nightmare."

State election officials have said if the Holt Bill becomes federal law, in Tennessee it would mean replacing relatively new electronic voting equipment with with paper ballots and a scanning machine at each precinct, Frye said.

"They're basically putting a hold on spending for new voting equipment," Frye said.

She and other election officials from across the state will be meeting this week to discuss the Holt Bill and other issues.

"Our voting machines have the capability to produce a voter verified paper audit trail (VVPAT)," Frye said of the $457,000 worth of equipment bought last year. "But we'd have to buy an additional component - we couldn't buy that last year because that wasn't certified in Tennessee. But now the Holt Bill is saying that VVPAT will not meet all the qualifications - so it's apparent, if the Holt Bill passes, we'll have to go to a paper ballot so we'll have a piece of paper that shows what the voter intended."

The VVPAT option available on the machines being used in Sullivan County would basically produce a paper tape - under glass next to the machine, so voters can see it and verify their vote - but not take a copy with them from the polling place - which could be used by election officials to audit machine results.

Frye said election officials across the nation are thinking there's a good chance the Holt Bill will pass Congress, but amendments have been offered to postpone implementation until 2010.

Last year, to comply with the federal Help Americans Vote Act (HAVA), Sullivan County was required to purchase at least enough handicapped-accessible electronic voting machines to have one at each voting precinct in the county.

The state provided about $255,000 in federal pass through money toward reaching that benchmark. The Sullivan County Election Commission recommended - and the Sullivan County Commission approved - spending local dollars in order to just go with all new machines countywide, so there wouldn't be two different voting systems being used.

If the Holt Bill passes, some of those new machines would continue to be in use, Frye said.

"It says you still have to have a handicapped machine at each precinct for the voters who need it," Frye said.

Brook Thompson, state coordinator of elections, sent a letter to county election officials in Tennessee last month advising them not to purchase any additional voting equipment until the fate of the Holt Bill is known.

"On March 29, 2007, counties were sent an advisory about pending legislation and the purchase of certified voting equipment," Thompson wrote. " This memo is an update to this situation. The federal legislation (the Holt Bill) has moved out of committee in the U.S. House. Election officials across the state and nation worked hard to amend that bill, but our efforts were not successful. The legislative process is ongoing. The state election office is not issuing any more grant money to any counties until the legislative issues surrounding the voting systems are resolved. This applies to all counties whether or not you previously spent all your allocated voting machine money. Although I can't stop counties from spending local tax dollars to purchase currently certified Direct Record Electronic Machines, I advise you not to purchase any equipment with county money until the legislative issues are resolved. It appears likely that Congress will pass a bill requiring voter verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) in some form. This almost certainly would result in Tennessee counties moving to precinct-based optical scan. Obviously, even if this requirement does not become effective until 2010, any further purchase of DREs would be a certain waste of county resources."

Electronic voting machines are also known as direct-recording electronics, or DREs.

A summary of the Holt Bill, H.R. 811 is available online from the Library of Congress.

It reads, in part:

•(1) IN GENERAL - Section 301(a)(2) of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (42 U.S.C. 15481(a)(2)) is amended to read as follows:



•(i) VERIFICATION - (I) The voting system shall require the use of or produce an individual, durable, voter-verified paper ballot of the voter's vote that shall be created by or made available for inspection and verification by the voter before the voter's vote is cast and counted. For purposes of this subclause, examples of such a ballot include a paper ballot marked by the voter for the purpose of being counted by hand or read by an optical scanner or other similar device, a paper ballot prepared by the voter to be mailed to an election official (whether from a domestic or overseas location), a paper ballot created through the use of a ballot marking device or system, or a paper ballot produced by a touch screen or other electronic voting machine, so long as in each case the voter is permitted to verify the ballot in a paper form in accordance with this subparagraph.

•(II) The voting system shall provide the voter with an opportunity to correct any error made by the system in the voter-verified paper ballot before the permanent voter-verified paper ballot is preserved in accordance with clause (ii).

•(III) The voting system shall not preserve the voter-verified paper ballots in any manner that makes it possible, at any time after the ballot has been cast, to associate a voter with the record of the voter's vote.

•(ii) PRESERVATION - The individual, durable voter-verified paper ballot produced in accordance with clause (i) shall be used as the official ballot for purposes of any recount or audit conducted with respect to any election for Federal office in which the voting system is used, and shall be preserved -

•(I) in the case of votes cast at the polling place on the date of the election, within the polling place in the manner or method in which all other paper ballots are preserved within such polling place on such date; or

•(II) in any other case, in a manner which is consistent with the manner employed by the jurisdiction for preserving such ballots in general.

•(iii) MANUAL AUDIT CAPACITY - (I) Each paper ballot produced pursuant to clause (i) shall be suitable for a manual audit equivalent to that of a paper ballot voting system, and shall be counted by hand in any recount or audit conducted with respect to any election for Federal office.

•(II) In the event of any inconsistencies or irregularities between any electronic vote tallies and the vote tallies determined by counting by hand the individual, durable voter-verified paper ballots produced pursuant to clause (i), and subject to subparagraph (B), the individual, durable voter-verified paper ballots shall be the true and correct record of the votes cast.

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