As the presidential candidates' ramp up their campaigns, it's hard to resist asking, 'can't give us a break?' Didn't the last federal election cycle just end? Isn't November 2008 awfully far away?
Perhaps. But there is one campaign for all future federal elections that must begin in earnest immediately. And that is the campaign to make elections as secure and accurate as possible. After Florida's hanging chad debacle in 2000, voting irregularities in Ohio in 2004, and the mysterious loss of 18,000 votes in a House race in Sarasota in 2006, there is little room for another divisive national election marred by voting machine glitches.
The good news is that experts agree on what steps must be taken to make voting systems more secure and more reliable. In fact, the House of Representatives is about to vote on a bill introduced by Congressmen Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Tom Davis (R-VA) that would mandate many of these steps.
Most dramatically, the Holt-Davis bill would ban all paperless electronic voting in federal elections. By November 2008, all states would have to use voting systems that produce a voter verifiable paper record. In other words, voters would vote on systems that give them an opportunity to review or fill out a piece of paper that contains a record of their votes. Currently, voters in 18 states are denied that opportunity.
Just as importantly, Holt-Davis mandates random manual counts comparing the voter verified paper to the electronic tallies, in order to "check" the electronic count and ensure that programming errors, software bugs or other corrupt software did not cause the electronic voting machine to miscount federal election results. Only 13 states require this important security measure today.
The bill also bans the use of most wireless components on voting machines. Security experts have warned that wireless components can be particularly dangerous, because they can allow a member of the general public to send or receive signals from the voting machines from a distance -- potentially triggering attacks against the voting systems with a hand held device such as a Palm Pilot or other personal digital assistant. Only two states ban such components for all machines.
Finally, the bill would immediately end the practice whereby vendors pay and choose the testing labs that certify their machines. Voting integrity experts have long decried this system, which creates a serious conflict of interest for testing lab: pass a system or risk the loss of future business? Not surprisingly, this system has produced terrible results. The testing labs have certified many machines that had serious security defects, violated federal guidelines, and broke down on Election Day, losing thousands of votes. Under Rep. Holt's bill, the Election Assistance Commission will hold money for testing labs in escrow, and assign testing labs for machine certification at random.
None of these proposed changes should be controversial. Nevertheless, opposition to the bill has built in recent weeks.
Many election officials have complained that the bill's deadlines are unrealistic. They also fear that they may not receive adequate funding to make the needed changes. Fortunately, the most recent version of the Holt-Davis bill moves many of the deadlines to more realistic time frames (while still mandating an end to paperless electronic voting by November 2008). It also significantly increases federal funds to local jurisdictions to make equipment changes. Ultimately, the objections of some election officials are not reasons to oppose this critical bill. If need be, deadlines can be adjusted as the legislation moves forward, and appropriators can be held accountable if they fail to provide sufficient funds to get the job done.
Some have used these objections as an excuse to make sure Congress does not do anything to make voting systems more secure and accurate. Last week, Congressman Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) introduced the so-called "Voter Enhancement and Security Act of 2007," urging his fellow Republicans to vote for it instead of the bipartisan Holt-Davis bill. Unfortunately, Congressman Ehlers' bill does nothing to address the serious voting system security vulnerabilities experts have identified.
We cannot allow election integrity and security to become a partisan issue addressed with public relations messages instead of honest analysis of the risks and serious implementation of the solutions. Congress has an opportunity to act now. Voting system fiascos in each of the last several federal elections suggest that if it fails to do so, we will see more divisive Election Day debacles -- all too soon.
Lawrence Norden is the author of the just published The Machinery of Democracy: Protecting Elections in an Electronic World (Academy Chicago Press). He is a counsel in the Brennan Center for Justice Democracy Program and was the Chair of the Brennan Center Task Force on Voting System Security.