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Congressmen urge that voting machines provide a `paper trail'

WASHINGTON—Two longtime congressional critics of electronic voting machines seized on the turmoil in Florida Wednesday to renew a call for a paper trail of voter ballots.

As investigators in Sarasota County, Fla., continued to sort out why 18,000 blank votes, or "undervotes," were recorded in the race to replace Rep. Katherine Harris, New Jersey Democratic Rep. Rush Holt charged that the inaccuracy of the machines "poses a direct threat to the integrity of our electoral system and to our nation's democracy."

"Without a voter-verified paper audit trail, no satisfactory resolution is possible," said Holt, adding that machine problems also cropped up in New Jersey. "One side or the other will always doubt the result."

Florida officials continued to investigate Sarasota County's touch-screen voting machines. The "undervote" in the congressional race was far more than the undervote in other counties in the congressional district.

But Holt noted that without a paper record there was no way to tell what happened.

"Whatever the origin, whether it was software error or voter error or malicious hacking, you should have a way to resolve it," he said. "Now Florida once again finds itself electorally up in the air."

Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., who unsuccessfully has taken his quest for paper ballots to the federal courts, said it strained credulity to believe that 18,000 voters in the county voted in the U.S. Senate race and for county judge, "but miraculously chose not to vote" in the congressional race.

"I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but you can't help but mention that the one county with a problem was the county that supported the Democratic candidate," Wexler said.

The Democratic candidate, Christine Jennings, is trailing in the recount but is in Washington this week to attend freshman orientation, along with Republican Vern Buchanan, who has a 400-plus vote lead over Jennings.

Jennings didn't attend the paper trail press conference, but she attended a morning press conference for the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of moderate and conservative Democrats who endorsed Jennings in the race. Jennings has said she's convinced she'll win the recount and will be allowed to vote in House of Representatives leadership elections.

Wexler and Holt noted that nearly two dozen states now require paper ballots, but Florida does not. Wexler blamed the "irrational stubbornness" of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who he said has refused to consider paper ballots.

A spokeswoman for Bush said that the Republican governor isn't opposed to a paper trail but that the technology would have to be certified by the secretary of state's office.

Both lawmakers said they hoped the transfer of power in Congress will give the legislation a lift. Holt said he was "blown off" when he suggested GOP leadership take up the bill during the lame-duck session, though he picked up two co-sponsors after last week's election and now has the support of 221 members of the House, from both parties.

His legislation would require that all voting systems produce a "voter-verified paper record," which would be used in audits. The legislation puts aside $150 million to help states meet the cost of carrying out the requirement.

Holt said the legislation hasn't advanced because of "inertia and suspicion," but he said he believes with more states opting for paper trails, "people up here are coming around."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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