Legislature should back Mauro, not Culver, on voting machines

The Sunday edition of the Des Moines Register has a front-page story on the disagreement between Governor Chet Culver and Secretary of State Mike Mauro over Iowa’s voting machines. Key passage:

Meanwhile, each man is trying to drum up support for his own proposal for ensuring a paper trail for every voting machine in Iowa.

Mauro wants to spend $9.7 million to give every voter an actual paper ballot that could be recounted later.

Culver wants to spend only $2 million to equip touch-screen voting machines, which have electronic ballots, with a special printer that shows voters their choices on a continuous roll of paper.

In Mauro’s cheering section are watchdog groups, and some key lawmakers and county election officials of both political stripes.

Sean Flaherty of Iowans for Voting Integrity, a Fairfield-based citizens group, gave Culver’s plan a thumbs down.

“Paper printouts are better than no paper trail, but spending money on paper-trail printers is chasing good money after bad,” said Flaherty, of North Liberty. “No one respects these printers, and it is likely that Congress will ban them in the near future.”

Culver blasted the more expensive plan last week.

“Money does not grow on trees around here,” he said in an interview. “The idea that we could come up with $9 million right now is a pipe dream. It’s irresponsible to suggest otherwise.”

Mauro has said he would pay for his plan for optical scan machines and ballot-marking devices with $3.7 million already earmarked, and by paying the voting equipment vendor the remaining $6 million on installment over the next three years.

As I’ve written before, I agree with Mauro on this issue. I lack confidence in the technology that would attach paper receipts to touchscreen machines, and such a fix would probably be throwing good money after bad, since the federal government may outlaw touchscreen machines in the next few years.

You can find more background on the issue, as well as persuasive arguments in favor of paper ballots, at the Iowa Voters site, which is dedicated to “open and transparent elections.”

Speaking of federal legislation, if you check out Blog for Iowa, Susannah Goodman of Common Cause and Jerry Depew of Iowa Voters have information on an important bill proposed by Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey (H.R. 5036, the Emergency Assistance for Secure Elections Act of 2008).

While no voting system is error-free, the recent recount of the New Hampshire primary results showed that the error rate for optical-scanner precincts was very low.

At some point we need to bite the bullet and spend the money necessary to get optical scanners in all the Iowa counties. In the event of another very close election, we need to have real paper ballots to recount.

I would also support hand recounts of a few precincts (randomly chosen) afer every state election. Apparently a bill to that effect is under consideration in the New Hampshire legislature. I don’t know if anyone has proposed a similar bill in Iowa before.

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  • Paper trail printers are indeed throwing good money after bad

    As the sidebar in the Register piece notes, 20% of the paper-trail printouts were unreadable in the November 2007 election in Cleveland. More background on paper trail failures can be found in this compilation by North Carolina activists.

    For legislators and the Governor, here’s a summary of reasons why paper ballots and optical scan are better than paper trails.

    HR 5036, the Rep. Holt’s emergency funding bill, would only fund the purchase of paper ballot systems; it would not fund new printers  (see the section titled “paper ballot voting system defined”).

    Call your Congressman to support HR 5036; Jerry has the phone numbers at Iowa Voters. Here’s a quick an alert you can sign in support of HR 5036. It sends messages automatically to Iowa’s delegation.  

    Thanks, desmoinesdem, for supporting voter-marked paper ballots!

    Sean Flaherty, Iowans for Voting Integrity