GOP objects to bill allowing recounts

Ben Adler // Published April 25, 2008 in Politico
Voting rights activists who hoped the federal government would help local governments pay for paper trails and audits for electronic voting machines have gone from elation to frustration as they watched Republicans who supported such a proposal in committee vote against bringing it to the House floor.

The result: The elections in November will likely be marred by the same accusations of fraud and error involving voting machines that arose in the aftermath of the 2004 presidential race.

When New Jersey Democratic Rep. Rush Holt’s Emergency Assistance for Secure Elections Act came up for a vote in the House Administration Committee on April 2, the Republicans on the committee gave it their unanimous support. But two weeks later, those same Republican members voted against moving the bill to the House floor. It would have taken a two-thirds vote to push the bill to the floor; with most House Republicans opposed, the bill didn’t make it that far.

Larry Norden, director of the voting technology project at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school, called the vote “a sad statement on how little Congress has done on the issue of making sure elections are as secure and reliable as possible.”

In May 2003, Holt proposed the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act. That bill would have mandated a paper trail for voting machines so that voters could verify their vote and a recount could be performed, if necessary. The measure faced conservative objections on states’ rights grounds and failed to make much headway.

So Holt introduced his new bill in January. Under the Emergency Assistance for Secure Elections Act, the federal government would help localities switch to paper ballots or attach printers to their electronic voting machines in time for the November elections. To overcome states’ rights objections, Holt crafted the bill as an opt-in: Nobody would be required to switch technologies or conduct audits, but federal funding would be available to offset costs for those who did.

Without a mandate, Holt’s bill drew more bipartisan support; Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) was one of the 92 co-sponsors. “We need standards to ensure that things are auditable, verifiable and give the voters confidence, and [Davis] doesn’t think that what we have now does that,” said Davis spokesman Brian McNicoll.

“The principle reason for the bipartisan consensus is that this was opt-in,” Holt told Politico after the bill passed committee. “Everybody, Democrat and Republican, would prefer fewer disputed elections and better ways of resolving disputes. You can’t resolve disputes without a paper trail.”

But Holt’s bill hit a snag on April 15 when the White House put out a statement of opposition on the grounds that it was unnecessary to spend the money appropriated in the bill when funding could come instead from the Help America Vote Act.

Republicans say it was the bill’s cost, not the White House’s opposition, that caused them to change their votes. “The version that passed committee on April 2 did not authorize a specific dollar amount,” said Salley Collins, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the Administration Committee. “We didn’t receive the [Congressional Budget Office] score until the 14th of April, one day before it went to the floor. … So we did not know that the proposed legislation would cost $685 million — $50 million more than Holt’s first version.”

Holt and his staff dismissed that objection. “There’s no reason to expect it would actually cost $680 million,” he said, arguing that the $680 million estimate assumes more local governments will opt in than he believes is likely.

Republicans also cited concerns regarding implementation. Collins said Holt’s bill is “overly prescriptive with the hand recounts,” and she suggested that it might not be realistic to expect local governments to adopt new technologies in such a short timeframe. “It could wreak havoc on a hotly contested election,” she said.

Holt says these issues are red herrings: Because of the opt-in nature of the bill, any state worried that it could not complete the process in time could simply choose not to participate.

While some election reform activists would have preferred a mandatory bill, many saw it as the best they could hope to get in time for the next election. “On Election Day, if machines are breaking down and there are no paper ballots, the failure of this bill will be one place to look for explanations,” said Norden.

Holt is predicting exactly that: Ultimately, he said, the bill’s failure will mean that “millions of voters will leave the 2008 election questioning the process and whether their vote means anything.”

Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify references to bills introduced by Rep. Holt.