Good Guys vs. Good Guys on Voting Machine Reform

Voting reform ensuring honest, accessible and accurate elections is vital to implementing any progressive agenda, but an internal battle has broken out among progressive groups and leaders over how best to achieve that goal.

The most visible protagonists on this issue are focusing on the fight over whether to ban touch-screen vote-counting machines as part of legislation introduced by Rep. Rush Holt. Among those squaring off are a popular blogger, Brad Friedman and some of his allies in the election-integrity movement who oppose the bill, and Ralph Neas, the head of People For the American Way, joined by such influential groups as MoveOn and Common Cause. In an article in this week's online edition of American Prospect, "Electric Boogaloo," I take a balanced look, packed with informative Web links, at the way different factions of ethnic minorities, the disabled and election reform advocates are pitted against each other on this critical issue. (The Brad Blog offers a section with the latest news and commentary on the Holt legislation, while Congressman Holt's site offers useful resources and information, too.) My article points out:

For most political controversies, progressives don't need a scorecard to tell the good guys apart from the bad. One would expect that simple dynamic to apply to electronic voting reform, which Democrats have pledged to address during this Congress. But in fact, the thorny issue of voting machines, in the context of a shared desire for a fair, accurate election in 2008 (following one infamous election meltdown after another during the last few cycles), has rendered the fault lines in the debate over reform anything but straight and clear. Simply put, with Democratic control of Congress making meaningful progressive election reform a possibility for the first time in years, the "good guys" are busy battling each other.

The immediate issue at hand is legislation introduced by New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt, and whether it provides sufficient safeguards for voters and ensures the integrity of upcoming elections. (Broader measures to bar deceptive practices, promote election-day registration, and other reforms are moving far more slowly in Congress.) Heated charges about misinformation, unholy alliances, and looming election-day disasters are flying back and forth among rival progressives and activists who generally share the same goal of fair elections. The Holt bill, now with 200 co-sponsors, was the focus of hearings in March, and, when Congress returns in mid-April, will be marked up by the House Administration Committee before likely heading for a successful floor vote. A companion bill, with some differences, is scheduled to be introduced in the Senate by Dianne Feinstein of California this month but faces a far steeper uphill fight to pass.

The Holt bill, at first glance, seems to offer sensible solutions that many progressives have long been clamoring for; it bans paperless Direct-Recording Electronic machines (known as "DREs" or touch-screen tabulators), requires voter-verified paper "trails" and ballots, and, for the first time, mandates routine random audits of voting machine results. David Becker, the attorney who heads People for the American Way (PFAW)'s Democracy Campaign, tells the Prospect, "We believe the Holt bill in general strikes the best balance of security of election technology while at the same time providing accessibility for voters with disabilities and the minority language community."

Yet the bill has triggered an internecine war among progressives. It enjoys the backing of a wide range of influential organizations, including PFAW, Common Cause, MoveOn, Verified Voting, and SEIU. (Most civil rights groups have yet to take a position on it.) But other reformers, numerous and vocal if generally lacking the clout and organizational muscle of the proponents, have attacked the bill from two directions -- some for failing to go far enough towards the outright banning of DRE machines, and others for encouraging the use of optical-scan machines (which are believed to be less accessible to some disabled or foreign-language voters) through stringent regulation of DREs. The debate is as vituperative as it is multifaceted: One civil rights activist, concerned that the bill would pave the way for wider use of optical-scan machines that could limit minority access, told the Prospect, "PFAW has made a pact with the devil!"

What should progressives do?

To find out, go here to learn more.

I conclude that optical-scan machines are a better way to go, and the Holt bill, ironically, may produce that effect while nominally preserving touch-screen voting machines. Yet reformers pushing for optical-scan systems should make sure that those optical-scan and ballot-marking machines are truly accessible to both the disabled and foreign-language minorities, and that they work properly; dozens of ballot-marking machines failed in the last election. In the heated debate over the Holt bill, oddly enough, perhaps a centrist course might best advance a progressive agenda.

Whatever emerges from Congress on this issue -- if anything -- now that Democrats are in power, we better make sure that they get voting reform right. Or we could be facing another Ohio or another Sarasota in 2008. After the failings of the 2002 Help American Vote Act (HAVA), we may not get another chance at reform if we blow this opportunity.