Changes in e-voting afoot but who will foot the bill?

Democrats want to require paper trail but new requirements may mean yet more expensive purchases of equipment.

With new federal guidelines on e-voting machines and widespread voter discontent, changes at the polling place are a sure thing for the 2008 Presidential election, The New York Times reports.

"In the next two years I think we'll see the kinds of sweeping changes that people expected to see right after the 2000 election," said Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, a nonpartisan election group. "The difference now is that we have moved from politics down to policies."

With the Democratic takeover of Congress, federal legislation is expected to be passed to require a switch to paper trail machines. Indeed:

Fixing the voting system is viewed as a core issue by the new Democratic leaders, and the bill already has the bipartisan support of more than a majority of the current House. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, who will be the new chairwoman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, said she planned to introduce a similar bill in January.

But if Democrats want to change the rules of voting again, states will want to know where they money is going to come from. The Help America Act Vote provided billions for states to switch to electronic voting machines. Democrats are thinking of providing just $150 million for a change-over. Congress didn't establish clear guidelines for the machines in HAVA and federal guidelines took too long to be developed, critics have said.

"Everyone was getting intense pressure to comply by January 2006, and so they went ahead and bought," said Alysoun McLaughlin, who was a lobbyist for the National Association of Counties at the time.
Around the country, states and localities are looking at junking their machines.
In Maryland, legislators say they plan to replace the more than $70 million worth of touch-screen machines the state began buying in 2002 with paper optical scanners, which officials estimate could cost $20 million.

Voters in Sarasota, Fla., where the results of a Congressional race recorded on touch-screen machines are being contested in court, passed a ballot initiative last month to make the same change, at an estimated cost of $3 million. Last year, New Mexico spent $14 million to replace its touch screens. Other states are spending millions more to retrofit the machines to add paper trails.

New York has been slow to replace its old lever voting machines, and the state has required counties to buy screens with printers or optical scanners. New Jersey has passed a law requiring its counties to switch to machines with paper trails by 2008, and Connecticut is buying machines that can scan paper ballots.

It's a movement that already is a steamroller. In the last two years, 27 states have required paper trails and eight others use such machines even without laws requiring them to do so. Even when printers are added to e-voting machines at a cost of $1000 to $2000 per machine, they're notoriously unreliable.

Because some printers malfunctioned last month, election commissioners in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which includes Cleveland, said last week that they were considering scrapping their new $17 million system of touch-screen machines and starting over with optical scanning devices.

In Harris County, Tex., which includes Houston, electronic machines can print a paper tally, but do not give voters a paper record, meaning they would not comply with Mr. Holt's bill. Beverly Kaufman, the county clerk, said she and other election officials elsewhere disliked the paper requirement.

"Every time you introduce something perishable like paper, you inject some uncertainty into the system," Ms. Kaufman said. She said she was skeptical that Congress would come up with enough money for replacements by 2008. "You show me where you can pry the cold, bony fingers off the money in Washington, D.C., that fast," she said.