Time for Congress to Move on the Holt Bill

Nothing less than the integrity of the 2008 elections is at stake

Are you one of the tens of millions of Americans whose voting precincts use paperless touch-screen voting machines? Then your vote is at risk--unless Congress moves quickly to avert a potential catastrophe before the 2008 presidential election.

Paperless touch-screen voting machines led to all sorts of problems in 2006. In Williamson County, Texas, some machines recorded three votes for every vote cast. Throughout Pennsylvania, there were reports of "vote flipping," where machines added votes to one candidate's tally even though they were cast for a different candidate. And in a mayor's race in a small town in Arkansas, voting machine totals had one candidate with zero votes, even though he voted for himself and his wife did too. The problem you've most likely heard about--because it almost certainly changed the outcome of an election--was in Sarasota County, Florida, where more than 18,000 votes disappeared on touch-screen machines in a congressional race.

None of the touch-screen machines involved in these cases produced a paper record of the votes that had been cast. This meant that voters had no way to verify that machines accurately recorded their votes. It also meant that when problems became apparent, election officials could not rely on a paper record outside of the machines for a recount. They were forced to accept the vote totals the machines produced--even when it was clear that those totals were flawed.

Today, those same machines are in use across the country, and are in danger of being used in 2008. If the status quo doesn't change, we should all prepare for more vote flipping, incorrect vote tabulation, and disappearing votes next year. The outcome of the presidential election could be affected.

Congress has the ability to remedy this situation. Congressman Rush Holt (D-N.J.) has introduced legislation that would confront this problem head-on by completely banning paperless touch-screen voting machines.

Under Congressman Holt's bill, H.R. 811, most election administrators could be expected to implement some sort of paper-based system, such as optical scan machines, as the standard for most votes. In cases where election officials decided to offer touch-screen or similar technology because of the increased accessibility it provides (many national disability rights and minority language rights organizations favor such machines for this reason), those machines would be subject to strict requirements: they would be required to produce a paper trail that voters could verify, the paper trail would be the official record for any recount, the software code running the machines would be available for public inspection so problems could be identified before elections, and wireless technology would be prohibited in the machines, so hackers could not tap into them and change vote totals without a physical connection. Congressman Holt's bill also implements a mandatory random audit process to ensure that such machines function properly.

The Holt bill has garnered broad support in the voting rights and civil rights communities. It is supported by People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation, Common Cause, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the National Education Association, SEIU, MoveOn, Verified Voting and others, and more than 200 members of Congress are already cosponsors in the House. Congressional action is needed now--the bill must pass the House this summer for reforms to be implemented by 2008.

Some critics oppose the Holt bill because it does not completely ban all direct-record electronic machines (or DREs), even those with a voter-verifiable paper trail. These critics' opposition is unfortunate. If the Holt bill passes as-is, it will dramatically reduce the number of DREs in operation and impose new safeguards on the ones that remain--a major improvement, by the critics' own calculation, over the status quo. However, if these critics have their way and a DRE ban is added to the Holt bill, disability rights and minority language rights groups will likely oppose the bill and scuttle hopes for passage--leaving voters stuck without any improvements in 2008. This is why the mainstream groups listed above, as well as prominent voting technology experts including Avi Rubin and Ed Felten, support the Holt bill.

Congress must move now to make the Holt bill's reforms a reality for voters in 2008. Please contact your representative today and urge him or her to ensure that the Holt bill moves through the legislative process quickly. (An easy way to do this is via People For the American Way's online petition.) Together, we can address the problem of paperless voting machines in time for the next presidential election and help create a voting system that is safer and more secure. Our democracy depends on it.

Ralph G. Neas is President of People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation. For more detailed information about and analysis of the Holt bill, click here.