Senate bill urges e-voting paper trail

Tech Culture

Under a bill introduced Tuesday in the U.S. Senate, all electronic voting machines would have to allow voters a way to verify their picks on paper before casting their ballots.

The 48-page bill introduced by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is similar in many ways to one proposed last week--and in multiple previous congressional sessions--by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.). Called the "Vote Integrity and Verification Act," both bills would make it mandatory for all voting systems to include a paper ballot component that would allow the voter to correct his or her vote before it was submitted and would be preserved for use in subsequent audits or recounts.

The bills would also require random audits comparing results recorded on paper against electronic tabulations. Although 27 states already have laws on their books requiring use of paper ballots, 14 of them do not have manual audit requirements, according to the advocacy group Verified Voting.

Computer scientists and other voting advocacy have long backed the idea of a voter-verified paper trail. They say that approach is the best way to giver voters assurance that their picks have been accurately recorded by electronic machines amid recurring concerns about their security, reliability and transparency. Such an approach would also allow for independent audits in close or disputed elections, advocates say.

But proposals to make paper receipts serve as the official ballot of record in the event of a recount could prove contentious. Some elections officials have argued that because the printers associated with touch-screen voting machines are vulnerable to their own glitches, relying solely on such receipts threatens to disenfranchise voters.

In introducing his bill, Nelson said congressional action is urgently needed in order to restore voter confidence. He pointed to an incident during the last congressional election in Sarasota County, Florida, in which some blamed faulty electronic machines for a seemingly anomalous 18,000 undervote count in a close congressional race there. Litigation on that front is still pending.

"With another presidential election on the horizon, we need to fix this--and fix it now," Nelson said in prepared remarks for a Senate floor speech. "Let us never have another election after which citizens are left to doubt its legitimacy."

The bill's prospects for passage this year remain unclear. During the last session, Holt's proposal enjoyed support from more than a majority of the House but never proceeded to a floor vote.

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