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House panel approves e-voting paper trails

Public interest groups say bill is needed to improve the integrity of the voting process. But will it become law this year?

All U.S. voting systems would be required to produce or make use of verifiable paper ballots in time for the next presidential election under a bill approved this week by a House of Representatives panel.

By a 6-3 vote along party lines, the House Administration Committee on Tuesday afternoon approved an amended version (PDF) of the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act, chiefly sponsored by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and backed by 212 other members of Congress.

Aside from the paper trail requirement, the bill also imposes 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. In addition, 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.

All voting precincts nationwide would generally have to conform to the new requirements in time for the general federal election in November 2008 and for each subsequent election. The bill sets aside an extra $1 billion--more than triple the amount proposed in the original bill--to distribute to states in the 2007 fiscal year to help them make their systems compliant.

State and local election officials have long complained that they wouldn't have enough funding or time to make all of the changes. Failure to amend the bill in ways that would meaningfully address those concerns prompted the committee's three Republicans to reject it after hours of debate on Tuesday, said Salley Collins, a spokeswoman for the committee.

"We're told these requirements are unrealistic and problematic and impossible for them to reach by 2008," she said in a telephone interview.

Lofgren, for her part, said in a statement e-mailed to CNET Wednesday evening that politics shouldn't get in the way of passing the bill, which she called "a vital first step in ensuring that we restore the public's trust in its government."

Many districts that employed machines with paper-based ballots or receipts in the last election are expected to qualify for a reprieve, extending that deadline for full compliance to the first federal election in 2010. But Collins said that's likely not enough time either.

Whether the proposal will actually proceed through the necessary channels and become law this year is less certain. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) signaled early this year that she plans to introduce a companion bill in the Senate, but it was not immediately clear when that would happen. Similar bills have stalled in previous congressional sessions.

Meanwhile, 27 states have already passed laws requiring current or future use of voter-verified paper ballots, and eight more use them statewide even though they aren't required by law, according to Verified Voting, which advocates for paper trails.

Computer scientists and watchdog groups have long charged that paper ballots are the only way that voters can truly verify their intent was recorded, particularly in the case of touch screen machines that have earned a reputation for security flaws and glitches and cannot be independently audited.

Public-interest groups blamed buggy touch screen machines for what appeared to be an 18,000 undervote in the congressional race in Sarasota County, Fla., last year and have argued that voter-verified paper trails could have helped to resolve that apparent anomaly. (Florida has since opted to ditch those machines entirely.)

The approved House bill would automatically consider the paper version the ballot of record except in special cases, such as if there is "clear and convincing" evidence that enough paper records have been compromised to influence the race's outcome. But critics of that approach say it's unwise because paper ballots can easily be mangled or lost. Supporters of the bill say it addresses that concern by prescribing that the paper ballots be printed on "durable paper of archival quality."

They also said the bill is praiseworthy because it would require all states to conduct random, hand-counted audits of select percentages of the voter-verified paper ballots cast in a race, except when a candidate ran uncontested or racked up 80 percent or more of the vote count.

"We've never had that in elections, even before voting machines came in," said Barbara Simons, the Association of Computing Machinery's past president and chairwoman of its e-voting study group. "This is a really enormous change, and just from a security perspective, it really makes a big difference."