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E-voting paper trail push stalls in Congress

To the rejoicing of county officials, House postpones debate on bill that would require nationwide use of a voter-verified paper record by next fall's federal elections.

A Democratic-backed contingent in Congress is still hoping to enact a requirement that all electronic voting machines used in next fall's presidential elections produce voter-verified paper trails, but a bumpy road lies ahead.

E-voting machines
Elections officials supervise voters using the high-tech voting gear at Sinclair Elementary School in Prince William County, Va., in November 2006. Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Rules met on Wednesday to begin discussing H.R. 811, the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007, but never reached an agreement on how to proceed with the bill. They were supposed to meet again on Friday morning, setting the stage for a vote as early as Monday, but that meeting was canceled.

As Congressional Quarterly reports, that means a vote won't occur until at least the week of September 17 (next week will be shortened for Congress because of the Rosh Hashanah holiday)--if then. Local officials, and in particular the National Association of Counties, have mounted intense opposition to the bill and took the postponements as a positive sign for their cause. They believe the bill establishes an unrealistic timetable and doesn't set aside enough money to help them implement the changes.

The bill would generally require all voting precincts nationwide to conform to the new requirements in time for the federal elections in November 2008. The bill sets aside an extra $1 billion to help states get their systems in order, but opponents say that's still not enough. Although 30 states already require a paper record, not all of them have put those changes into place yet.

In addition to the paper record mandate, the bill also proposes a number of new security obligations, such as a general ban on any wireless technology in the machines and on connecting devices used to record or tabulate ballots to the Internet. Only equipment preapproved by accredited test laboratories would be eligible for use in federal elections--a move aimed at keeping potentially flawed software from being slipped in at the last minute. And audits would have to be conducted in all federal elections unless a seat up for grabs was uncontested or a candidate had received more than 80 percent of the vote.

A number of public-interest and voter advocacy groups support the bill, chiefly sponsored by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), because they believe adding a paper trail to the e-voting process is the only way to perform reliable audits of elections and to assure voters their ballot has been cast as they desired. Some have conceded the Holt proposal isn't perfect--arguing, for example, that it doesn't have a robust enough requirement that voting machine source code be disclosed for inspection--but nonetheless say it's an important step forward.

It's a multifaceted issue, to be sure: Even a paper trail can present privacy and security concerns, as demonstrated by a study in Ohio that CNET reported last month.