HR 811, sponsored by Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ) and cosponsored by half the members of Congress, is a bill that protects the very essence of our democracy: the ability to verify that our votes are counted accurately.
Right now, in many states, we don’t have a way of verifying that our votes are counted accurately. In fact, there’s a great deal of evidence to suggest our vote has been compromised since the advent of computerized vote counting. In the past, we had punchcards and optical scan ballots – hard paper records indicating how we voted. Whether the contents of those ballots were reflected in the original count is anyone’s guess. But they were there, available for a recount.
Many states use Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) machines that do not produce any kind of paper record of the vote that a voter can verify. In other words, there’s no way to audit your vote, to know if the digital record accurately reflects your vote. HR 811 would require that all machines—no matter the system—use or produce a printed paper ballot that the voter can verify and that can be used to verify the accuracy of electronic vote counts. The bill says, explicitly:
The voting system shall require the use of or produce an individual, durable, voter-verified paper ballot of the voter's vote that shall be created by or made available for inspection and verification by the voter before the voter's vote is cast and counted.That’s a huge step forward, and enables recounts based on something the user had the chance to verify.
But what if the vote was recorded incorrectly and no recount was requested? That’s where audits come in.
Most of us use ATM machines frequently. Why aren’t we afraid of trusting our money to computers? Because we can personally audit where our money goes and ensure that transactions appear correctly. Banks trust them because they can audit the records too.
So it’s not that we need to fear computer systems in the handling of our vote. We need to fear unaudited computer systems.
Holt’s bill, HR 811, provides for substantial audits. California is one of the few states with a mandatory audit on the books. But the audit rate, 1%, is not enough to catch small scale vote alteration. Holt’s bill provides for a minimum 3% audit and requires up to a 10% audit on a sliding scale, depending on how close the vote is. The closer the vote, the more records need to be audited.
Some electronic voting activists want the ballots to be counted by hand, on paper. But in the past, when elections were done in that manner, there was a different kind of vote fraud. Voting officials could add or remove paper records between the closing of the polls and the count to get the desired result. In that sense, a computer vote—if and only if backed up and double-checked by rigorous hand-counted audits—may actually make us safer.
So what is this audit, exactly?
Under Holt’s bill, in federal elections (e.g., races for Congress, for Senate seats, and for President), states would have to audit at least 3% of the precincts, chosen at random, in full. In other words, under the supervision of an independent State election auditor, election officials would be required to recount 100% of the paper records in a minimum of 3% of the precincts. In closer races, that percentage goes as high as 10%. Holt’s bill HR 811 makes it clear that the voter verified paper record, not the electronic record, will be considered the true and correct record of the voters vote in the case of discrepancies between the hand count and the electronic count.
In an earlier version of the bill, if one had demonstrated that a sufficient number of paper ballots had been compromised to change the result, one could challenge the primacy of the paper records. But the bill that will be sent to the floor for a vote now says that in that circumstance, the electronic tally cannot be the sole determining record in an audit. In other words, there is a huge incentive now for registrars to ensure that the paper ballots are carefully preserved and kept safe so as not to be compromised.
A version of the bill introduced in a prior Congress gave a body appointed by the president, the Elections Assistance Commission (EAC) power over certain aspects of the audits. The earlier version of the bill would have extended the EAC’s lifetime. Many activists are concerned that a body appointed by the president (even though the body has to be bipartisan and confirmed in the Senate) could spell disaster for elections. In the bill that is going to the floor for a vote, the authorization for the EAC is no longer extended, and its ability to influence election outcomes is dramatically reduced.
The bill assures that people with disabilities can cast a vote on equipment that allows them to hear or feel their vote ‘read’ back to them via an electronic device. In the original version of the bill, the money appropriated to support the inclusion of such machines across the country was $300 million. Many activists complained that that figure was too low. In the version of the bill going to the floor for a vote, the amount has been increased to $1 billion, enough to cover the additional expense.
Some activists groups have been split on this issue, with many supporting the bill, even in its earlier form, and some vehemently opposed. Bev Harris of Black Box Voting, Paul Lehto, and Nancy Tobi strongly oppose this bill because they don’t want computers controlling our elections. They’re idealists.
I’m a realist. If we don’t pass this bill by summer, we’re not going to be able to do anything in time for the 2008 election. And if we don’t support this bill in its present, most robust form ever, it’s going to get weakened. Sadly, the activists named above and their supporters have banded together with secretaries of state and election supervisors to stop this bill from coming to a vote. HR 811 had been scheduled for a floor vote this week (the week of May 21) but is now awaiting a new place in the schedule.