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Republicans reject funding for paper-based voting

Democrats proposed reimbursing states for moving away from paperless electronic systems in time for the November election. Opponents balked at the estimated $685 million price tag.

Opposition from Republicans and the White House has sparked defeat of a Democratic proposal to reimburse state election officials for converting their electronic voting machines to paper-based systems ahead of November's election.

The U.S. House of Representatives measure, called the Emergency Assistance for Secure Elections Act of 2008, had been called up for what's known as a "suspension" vote on Tuesday. That means in order for it to pass, two-thirds of the House would have had to vote in favor of the bill.

Instead, the bill fell well short of that threshold, garnering a 239-178 vote, with only 16 Republicans voting yes. (Two Democrats voted no.)

Automark Voter Assist Terminal
Paper or electronic? In the case of the Automark Voter Assist Terminal, it's both. The machine is designed to mark paper ballots for voters with disabilities. (File photo from 2005; in January 2008, Election Systems & Software acquired the assets of Automark Technical Systems.) Automark Technical Systems

Introduced in January by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), the bill was designed to encourage states to use paper-based balloting systems and to audit their results in exchange for federal funding to finance those ventures. But taking those steps is not mandatory, unlike some previous efforts by Holt and other politicians to require voter-verified paper records in all machines by this fall.

It was Congress that encouraged states to switch to electronic voting machines in the first place, doling out funding through a 2002 law known as the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA for short. But Holt and other bill sponsors say the law must now be revised "to support paperless jurisdictions' efforts to invest in voting systems that are equipped with an independent paper copy of each vote--verified by the voter him or herself--to serve as a check on any electronic tallies reported by the voting machines."

"Although these machines are generally easy to use and, if properly equipped, accessible to voters with disability and language assistance needs, the 2006 election revealed that these machines suffer from an essential flaw: the digital results reported from these machines cannot be audited independently," the bill's sponsors wrote in a report accompanying the bill.

The bill in question doesn't give a dollar figure for how much states would be reimbursed, delegating a federal agency known as the Election Assistance Commission to determine what's "reasonable." But the Congressional Budget Office estimated its implementation would cost $685 million in a single year.

Before the vote on Tuesday, House Republicans railed against that price tag--and said they're not convinced paper is the only solution to ensuring the integrity of elections.

"I think there are other methods of achieving redundancy," said Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), ranking member of the House Committee on Administration, which oversees election-related legal matters. He added that "hand counting is not as accurate as almost any machine counting that I have seen."

The White House also put out a statement (PDF) urging the bill's defeat, calling it "largely redundant with existing law, and therefore unnecessary." The White House also argued the bill authorizes "excessive spending," noting that about $3 billion in federal grants have been allocated to state election officials since 2002, with more than $1 billion in unspent funds remaining.

Holt, for his part, attacked the cost-related objections. "I note that many people who opposed this legislation supported spending almost $330 million in recent years to provide election assistance in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan," Holt said in a statement. "I would have hoped those who supported efforts to export democracy abroad would be equally committed to strengthening democracy here at home."

It was not immediately clear what would happen next with the bill. Even if it had passed the House, it might not have gone any further this year. On the Senate side, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who serves as chairman of a committee that oversees election law changes, said last year that she didn't expect any major changes to be required until 2010.