Local Election Officials Oppose Paper Ballots

County election officials are joining others across the country in opposing legislation to require paper ballots for all voting equipment. They say it will cause chaos in next year's election. Hundreds of angry letters have poured into congressional offices.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

We turn now to stories about two products a lot of Americans worry about: toys and voting machines. Earlier this year, on Capitol Hill, it looked like legislation to require paper ballots for all voting equipment was on the fast track. Democrats were in charge and a disputed election in Florida had raised new questions about electronic voting. Now local election officials are trying to put the breaks on that bill. They say it will cause chaos in next year's election.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: County election officials are hardly an excitable bunch. But bring up H.R. 811 and their blood will boil.

Mr. BOB LEE (Election Official, Philadelphia): The dust isn't even settled yet and we're still working on improving things, and you say, well, wait a minute, we got to go back to paper. I'm saying, something's wrong here. Something's wrong here.

FESSLER: Bob Lee runs elections in Philadelphia. He was meeting last week with colleagues from over 30 Eastern Pennsylvania counties. Most of them just bought new paperless electronic voting machines last year at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. H.R. 811 would require them to get all new equipment by next November.

Mr. LEE: I would say there's no time between now and the presidential election in 2012. That's about how much time you need to do this right.

FESSLER: So these election officials are joining others across the country in opposing the bill. Hundreds of angry letters, punctuated with lots of exclamation marks, have poured into congressional offices. Please stop this madness, wrote one official. These ridiculous changes will destroy any voter confidence left, wrote another.

Ms. ELAINE LUDWIG (Chief Clerk, Lebanon County) A big gripe of election officials is that we are down in the trenches and that we should have a little input into what kind of systems we think are going to work for us.

FESSLER: Elaine Ludwig is chief clerk in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, which just purchased touch-screen voting equipment to replace the lever machines it used for 50 years. She's worried about having to teach coworkers a whole new system again next year if paper is required.

Ms. LUDWIG: I think it's just going to be difficult. I'm going to be losing poll workers and they're very hard to find, to begin with.

Representative RUSH HOLT (Democrat, New Jersey): I'm sorry, states must provide, they owe it to the voters to provide voting systems that are transparent and reliable and accessible and verifiable.

FESSLER: New Jersey Democrat Rush Holt is the driving force behind the bill. For years he has called for paper ballots and he says that time for delay is over. He's already eased some deadlines in the bill and rejects complaints that it's too close to the next election to make a change.

Rep. HOLT: There is time to do it before the general election of 2008. And I think we must do it before the election of 2008 so we don't go through another election where the voters don't believe the results.

FESSLER: He says all electronic voting machines should include durable paper ballots that can be checked by the voter before the ballot is cast. And if there's a recount, the paper ballot should be the official ones. He has a lot of support. Almost half the members of the House have signed on as cosponsors. Although Holt admits a few have started to raise concerns because of all the opposition. Critics say a lot of people are just starting to pay attention to the details of the bill, now that it might actually pass.

Mr. DOUG LEWIS (Executive Director, Election Center): Then folks have to sit down and say, oh, we didn't know it did that. Oh, we weren't sure it did - oh my, we didn't intend that.

FESSLER: Doug Lewis is head of the non-profit Election Center which advises election officials. He says not only are the logistics of installing paper ballots difficult, he doesn't know why advocates think it's an improvement.

Mr. LEWIS: All presume that somehow paper is magically better than electronics when we know that voting on paper, the voters continue to make far more mistakes than they do any other way.

Mr. WARREN STEWART (VoteTrustUSA): How do you know? How can you tell?

FESSLER: Warren Stewart is policy director for VoteTrustUSA, one of a number of advocacy groups backing Holt's bill. Stewart says all you have to do is look at last year's election in Sarasota County, Florida, where 18,000 electronically cast ballots showed no votes for a contentious House race. While bad ballot design has been blamed, Stewart says a paper ballot would have been the only way to be sure.

Mr. STEWART: Who is to know whether that machine counted every vote accurately or not if the voter has no way of verifying what went on inside the machine?

FESSLER: He thinks Holt's bill is a good next step, even though some activists think it doesn't go far enough, with an outright ban on electronic voting.

Meanwhile, back in Pennsylvania, county election officials are frustrated. They say they've had to deal with one voting change after another since 2000, with limited resources and little say in how things are done. Elaine Ludwig, for one, is ready to retire after 25 years.

Ms. LUDWIG: I've had enough. It's going to be sad when I have to leave but there comes a time where you say no, enough is enough.

FESSLER: And she says if Holt's bill passes, and everything has to change again next year, she won't be the only one to go.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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