'Paper Trail' Voting a Challenge for 2008

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Two bills have been introduced in Congress that would require a paper trail for electronic voting in future elections. The measures follow disputed midterm races. But some experts say changing the voting system by the 2008 presidential elections will be difficult.


Paper ballots may be on their way back. There is growing support in Congress to require paper ballots to be part of future elections. This follows last November's disputed congressional race in Sarasota County, Florida, which added to widespread concerns that electronic voting alone makes results difficult to verify.

Here's NPR's Pam Fessler.

PAM FESSLER: Earlier this week, Democratic Congressman Rush Holt introduced legislation to require voter-approved paper ballots to back up all electronic voting systems. He has 174 co-sponsors already and the number grows each day. In the Senate, Rules Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein says she plans to introduce a similar bill within the week.

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: I really think the time has come for there to be some national election standards, that everybody has to play by some rules that are same, that ensure to the greatest extent possible that a peoples' mark is the official mark of that individual.

FESSLER: The legislation is expected to gain more traction this year than in the past in part because Democrats now control Congress, and they tend to distrust electronic voting machines more than Republicans do. There's also the contested election in Florida's 13th Congressional District, where 18,000 ballots cast on touch screen machines registered no votes for either candidate.

Democrat Christine Jennings, who lost the race by 369 votes, is still contesting the outcome.

BILL NELSON: Obviously something is wrong.

FESSLER: Bill Nelson is Florida's Democratic senator. He admits there might have been problems with the electronic ballot's design which caused voters to miss the race, as some experts believe.

NELSON: But that doesn't explain all of it. So the only other explanation is something happened in that black box of the program or there was a malfunction in the machine. But there's no way to verify that.

FESSLER: He thinks a paper ballot - either alone or as a backup to the electronic ones - will give voters more confidence in the results. In fact, Florida's new Republican Governor, Charlie Crist, has just announced that he wants the state to get rid of all touch screen voting machines by 2008 and replace them with paper ballots.

But some election experts warned at a hearing yesterday before Feinstein's committee that it's not that simple. Brit Williams is with Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

BRIT WILLIAMS: Starting right now to change the voting system for 2008 is going to be difficult. If you don't have that thing already on order right now, you're probably not going to make it. So the bad news is that for the next election we're probably going to have to dance with them what brung us.

FESSLER: He says it would be more useful to focus on improving ballot design and training poll workers. Election officials also criticized a requirement in Congressman Holt's bill that the paper ballot be the official one in the event of a recount.

Connie Schmidt is a former election administrator in Kansas.

CONNIE SCHMIDT: If a voting machine paper trail is declared to be the official ballot, we will effectively disenfranchise voters whose ballots were cast when the machine jammed, ran out of toner, or failed to print.

FESSLER: And that's already happened in a number of elections.

There's also the question of money. State and local governments have spent billions since 2000 replacing their old voting equipment. They say they need more federal aid to make any additional changes, but there's no guarantee that Congress will come through.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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