Groups call for e-voting paper trail legislation

Problem is urgent but some say that other factors are equally to blame for slidshod voting procedures

A coalition of voting rights groups on Monday called on the U.S. Congress to pass legislation that would require electronic voting machines to have printers attached as a way to audit the touch-screen results.

But the lack of a paper trail for many e-voting machines was only one problem among many during the 2006 U.S. elections, said speakers at the Elections: Looking Forward conference, sponsored by Common Cause, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and other groups. Many of the problems attributed to e-voting machines were caused by a lack of training for poll workers or administrative mistakes, said Efrain Escobedo, director of voter engagement at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Poll workers observed by his group didn't know how to change the paper in machines with paper trails or didn't know how to reboot machines, he said.

Participants in the event also described several other problems not related to e-voting: poll workers demanding photo identification when it wasn't required by law, polling places lacking voting materials in languages other than English, polling places inaccessible to disabled people, and long lines.

But several speakers called on Congress to pass the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act, which would require paper trail printouts with touch-screen e-voting machines. Representative Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat, introduced the bill Feb. 5, after a similar piece of legislation failed to pass during the 2005-06 congressional session. The Holt bill has 183 cosponsors, close to half of the House of Representatives.

Congress needs to act in the next six to eight months for the legislation to affect the 2008 elections, said Ralph Neas, president and chief executive officer of People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group. Neas pointed to the 2006 vote in Sarasota Country, Florida, where e-voting machines did not record a vote from more than 18,000 people in a congressional race decided by less than 400 votes.

"Sarasota was a disgrace," Neas said. "Eighteen thousand votes ... inexplicably disappeared into cyberspace. But it's a teachable moment. We've got 18,000 faces now that we can put on the problem."

Not all speakers agreed that Congress should move ahead immediately with paper trails. Many visually impaired voters were able to vote without assistance on touch-screen machines for the first time in 2006, said Christina Galindo-Walsh, senior staff attorney with the National Disability Rights Network. Paper trail printouts would again create a two-tier voting system in which some disabled people don't have access to the same information as other voters, she said.

Galindo-Walsh and Jim Dickson, vice president for government affairs at the American Association of People with Disabilities, also said it was too late for Congress to mandate paper trail ballots by the 2008 presidential election. E-voting machine vendors wouldn't be able to produce enough printers by 2008, Galindo-Walsh said.

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed in 2002, mandated standards for voting machines, and those standards are just being completed now, Dickson added. Those standards still need to be tested, and new machines meeting those standards need to be built, he said.

"Either you lower the standards for the election equipment, or you live with the timeline that looks like 2010," he said. "You cannot have it both ways."

But many voters now question e-voting systems, added Melanie Campbell, executive director and CEO of the Coalition for Black Civic Participation. "The reality is voters are losing confidence in the system," she said.