January 7, 2005 | By Matt Zimmerman

Congress Talks About Talking About E-voting

Congressional Democrats yesterday forced a floor debate regarding the certification of Ohio's electoral votes. Citing widespread reports of voter suppression, e-voting machine breakdowns, and other examples of election day disenfranchisement, Senator Barbara Boxer of California and Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio objected to the certification of the Ohio presidential tally. With all of the intrigue and suspense of a Crossfire debate, the House and Senate promptly voted down the challenge, 267-31 and 74-1 respectively.

A defeat for proponents of verifiable and auditable voting technology? Not necessarily. In fact, it may even be a step on the road to victory. The purpose of the challenge had nothing to do with actually overturning the results of the election and everything to do with reminding Congress and the public at large -- in a very vocal way -- of the widespread, systematic flaws that infect this country's patchwork electoral system.

The good news: during this debate, many more members of Congress appeared to "get it" than in the past and demonstrated a renewed commitment to enacting substantive reform. Harry Reid of Nevada, for example, promised to introduce new legislation within the coming days to require voter-verified paper ballots with e-voting technology. Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan reiterated that serious problems occurred with electronic voting machines and demanded that a voter-verified paper audit trail be required for all such machines in the future. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon echoed the call for a paper trail requirement and noted that "credible journalists" had documented voting irregularities across the country. Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey went even further, promising to introduce federal legislation to limit the ability of election officials to engage in partisan activities à la Kathrine Harris in Florida and Kenneth Blackwell in Ohio. Senator Tom Harkin, recognizing that electronic voting machines failed in this election, stated that the current practice of keeping voting machine software secret and unreviewed was unacceptable and that federal legislation was required to make the practice more transparent.

The better news: specific e-voting legislation is actually right around the corner. A very good bill was introduced in 2003 by Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey and would have solved many of the problems posed by the current generation of electronic voting machines, not the least of which being the imposition of a voter-verified paper ballot. Despite numerous co-sponsors, the bill has been hung up in committee. Representative Holt will reintroduce a revised bill in the coming weeks. He deserves much credit for his perseverence.

Over the past two years, EFF has been closely involved with the effort to require reliable, verifiable election technology and to update legal regimes to take account of this technological evolution. In the coming year, we'll be on the forefront of these efforts, from reviewing election complaints to coordinating technology audits for counties to pushing legislative reform to bringing litigation. The 2004 presidential election may be over, but the work isn't.


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