Boxer, Dodd, Feingold Introduce Emergency Paper Ballot Bill

September 27, 2006

WASHINGTON, Sept. 26 — Three Senate Democrats proposed emergency legislation on Tuesday to reimburse states for printing paper ballots in case of problems with electronic voting machines on Nov. 7.

The proposal is a response to grass-roots pressures 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. “If someone asks for a paper ballot, they ought to be able to have it,” said Senator Barbara Boxer of California, a co-sponsor of the measure with Senators Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin.

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 with the poll workers using them 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 state’s 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 a precinct prints. 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.

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

Ms. Boxer said mandating all precincts to provide paper ballots would have been impractical. “I think Big Brother dictating something to local jurisdictions is a big mistake, because they will balk at it,” she said. “What we’re saying here is that you run your own elections, and we are going to help you run it properly. If local officials don’t take advantage of the option to take precautions, then they’re the ones on the line.”

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 to consider whether all voting equipment should
produce a paper record that lets voters verify how they voted.

Carl Hulse contributed reporting.