More evidence that we need verified voting

Thanks to the Iowa Voters blog, I learned about a transparency project in a California county that uncovered errors made by machines counting paper ballots in the recent election. Click here for more detail on the program and the errors it revealed.

This story provides further evidence that we need verified voting across the country. Mandatory manual audits of voter-verified paper records would allay fears about malfunctions or tampering with optical scanners.

It’s great that Iowa eliminated touchscreen voting machines last year, but we also need to make sure machines are counting paper ballots accurately. I hope Secretary of State Mike Mauro will work toward this goal.

I recommend that you check out the Verified Voting site to learn more about this issue. Also, it’s not too late to urge Barack Obama to support verified voting at the federal level.

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Thank heaven for paper ballots

The recount to determine the winner of Minnesota’s Senate race has been going on for six weeks, with a court challenge likely if Al Franken, who leads narrowly, is declared the winner. (WineRev’s diaries tell you everything you need to know about what’s going on in that race.)

Imagine how much more contentious this process would be if Minnesota did not use paper ballots in every county. Less than one one-hundredth of a percent of the vote separates Franken from Republican incumbent Norm Coleman. If touchscreen voting machines had been involved in any way, large numbers of people would surely believe the election had been rigged in favor of whoever came out ahead.

Mark Halvorson of Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota published this piece on what has worked well during the Minnesota recount, and how the system could still be improved.

Iowa had more state legislative races decided by less than 1 percent of the vote this year than in any other election I can remember. Fortunately, the state legislature heeded Secretary of State Mike Mauro’s call to require optical scanner machines with paper ballots in every county, and Governor Chet Culver signed that bill into law this spring. Otherwise the legitimacy of these extremely close races could have been questioned.

If you run into Mauro, thank him for his efforts to improve Iowa’s voting system, and encourage him to ask the legislature to take the next step toward “verified voting” (mandatory manual audits of voter-verified paper records). That would allay fears about malfunctions or tampering with the optical scanners as they count the votes.

As this map at VerifiedVoting.org shows, Minnesota is one of 18 states that has mandatory manual audits of voter-verified paper records. Iowa is one of 13 states that require paper ballots, but without mandatory audits to make sure the scanners are producing accurate counts.

Keep your eye on the Iowa Voters blog for updates on election integrity news and activism in Iowa.

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Why are King and Latham against verifiable elections?

I learned from the Iowa Voters blog that Steve King (IA-05) and Tom Latham (IA-04) were among the 85 percent of Republicans in the U.S. House who voted against New Jersey Democrat Rush Holt’s bill encouraging verifiable elections on Tuesday.

For details on the bill, click here. Here’s the gist:

H.R. 5036, as reported to the floor by the committee, would authorize funding to reimburse states with paperless jurisdictions that convert to paper-based voting systems in 2008 or provide emergency paper ballots that would be counted as regular ballots in the event of machine failure. The reimbursements would cover the cost of equipment conversion (from paperless touch screen machines to paper-based systems, such as optical scanners or computers with printers) and the cost of developing procedures for conducting hand-counted audits using independent, random selection of at least 2 percent of the precincts for audits under public observation.

Holt noted that two weeks ago, the House Administration Committee unanimously approved this bill. However, after the White House came out against the bill, 176 out of 203 Republicans fell in line.

At his blog, IowaVoter pointed out that the bill King and Latham voted against would have “re-imbursed Iowa for the expense of replacing our touchscreens.” (Two weeks ago Governor Chet Culver signed a law requiring all Iowa counties to use optical scanners and paper ballots.)

But no, King and Latham would rather rubber-stamp the Bush administration’s opposition to a bill that was voted unanimously out of committee.  

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Culver signs law banning touchscreen voting machines

Governor Chet Culver on Tuesday signed into law Senate File 2347, which requires all Iowa counties to use optical scan voting machines and paper ballots.

The state will spend an estimated $4.6 million to replace touchscreen voting machines in 19 counties that have been using them.

It’s a relief that all 99 counties will be using similar voting equipment, which is less vulnerable to tampering than touchscreen machines and allows for hand and machine recounts in the event of a close election.

The Des Moines Register quoted Sean Flaherty of Iowans for Voting Integrity as saying voters will also save time in the counties that are replacing the paperless machines. Voting by touchscreen takes longer and leads to bigger backlogs at polling stations.

A lot of credit goes to Secretary of State Mike Mauro, who showed leadership on this issue despite the governor’s early objections to the cost of the plan and complaints by some officials in the counties that had purchased touchscreen machines.

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Iowa moving toward paper ballots in all counties

I have good news and bad news. The good news is that

The Senate voted 47-1 on Senate File 2347, which calls for the state to pay for new machines so that every county has machines with paper ballots that could be recounted after an election.

The plan calls for the state to buy one machine for each precinct that needs an equipment update.

This bill, which would cost the state about $8.6 million, is adapted from Secretary of State Mike Mauro’s sensible plan to make sure that every Iowan casts a vote on a paper ballot.

The bad news is that county officials are objecting to the bill’s provision that

County taxpayers would pick up the tab for shipping, software, testing of the machines, and all licensing fees. And some counties would need to buy special tables for certain machines.

Dubuque County, for example, would have to spend almost $100,000 of its own money up front, plus an extra $10,000 or so per year for storage, license fees and additional staff that would be needed to deliver the equipment in time for elections, said Tom O’Neill, Dubuque County’s deputy commissioner of elections.

Dubuque County bought 43 touch-screen machines two years ago to meet federal requirements for helping voters with disabilities. It wasn’t easy or cheap to train more than 300 pollworkers, many of whom are in their 60s and 70s, O’Neill said.

I have limited sympathy for these county officials. They never should have spent money on machines that lacked paper ballots. Touchscreen machines are at the very least an accident waiting to happen–who knows when a close race will need to be recounted? And in the worst-case scenario, touchscreen machines could be tampered with, possibly leading to the wrong candidate being declared the winner of an election.

Meanwhile, the Register noted that

Lawmakers today adopted an amendment that stemmed from Gov. Chet Culver’s demand for more oversight of Secretary of State Michael Mauro’s purchase of the equipment.

The amendment would require Mauro’s office to work in consultation with the Department of Administrative Services on the purchase. The department director, Mollie Anderson, reports directly to Culver. Mauro, as an elected official, doesn’t.

I trust Mike Mauro to handle this matter, but at the same time, I have no problem with this amendment, if that’s what was necessary to get Governor Culver on board with Mauro’s plan for replacing voting machines.

With any luck, the presidential race is not going to be as close this year as in 2000 and 2004, but we are likely to have some state legislative races decided by very small margins. I feel more confident knowing that in the event of a close race, there will be paper ballots to recount.

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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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