WASHINGTON — Local governments that spent millions of dollars on new voting machines two years ago might have to do it again if a bill pending in Congress becomes law.
The bill would require ballots nationwide to have paper trails by the November 2008 presidential election.
That means that local governments in 19 states and the District of Columbia would have to reinvest in new sets of technology months before facing their busiest election day. Almost all other local governments nationally would be required to buy new equipment by 2012.
"Can't do it. There's no way," said Chris Exarchos, the chairman of the Centre County Board of Commissioners in State College, Pa. "You need time for a smooth transition."
The bill could be voted on in the House of Representatives early this week. Although there are 216 co-sponsors, the measure has run into snags in recent weeks as local governments lobby to say they can't meet the deadlines. The state of New York, for example, wants a one-year extension to use its lever machines.
Proponents say the requirements are needed after years of problems across the nation with vote undercounts, broken machinery and allegations of voter fraud.
"It's irresponsible to not have a paper backup," said Joyce McCloy, a Winston-Salem, N.C., resident and founder of N.C. Verified Voting, which is affiliated with a California-based national organization.
"You're looking at a national election," McCloy said. "One state could have a meltdown that could affect all 50."
Florida and Ohio, scenes of voter calamities in the past two presidential elections, already have changed their laws to include paper backups that can be verified by voters at the polls and audited after election days.
Some observers warn that swing states such as Pennsylvania could be the locale for the next wave of unflattering attention if the results are close in next year's election.
"Almost every county in (Pennsylvania) still has paperless voting systems," said Susannah Goodman, the director of the election program at Common Cause in Washington. "Here's a swing state. And you can't do an audit."
Some states, including South Carolina and Georgia, are entirely paperless.
Counties and states have lobbied against the bill, however, saying it amounts to a federal "unfunded mandate" that doesn't take local needs into account. Some question the need for hand-count backups.
"I believe that a rush to enact wholesale changes . . . will bring on that sort of meltdown," said Alysoun McLaughlin, a lobbyist with the National Association of Counties in Washington.
The bill comes just two years after counties invested millions to meet another federal mandate, the Help America Vote Act. That law forbids punch-card ballots.
The latest legislation requires independent auditors, hand recounts in federal election races and updated machines for voters with disabilities.
"It is a very good-intentioned bill that is not practical, reasonable or cost-effective," said Gary Bartlett, the elections director in North Carolina. "It's sort of like blowing away a gnat with a cannon. This is kind of excessive."
Many local governments bought touch-screen computers in recent years, a type of direct-record machine that has many voting-rights activists nervous. Machines in some states carry optional paper-trail attachments. The printers print continuous rolls of results that, unfurled, could be matched with voter log books to see who voted for whom.
The bill prohibits such technology, however. It would require individual pieces of paper that voters can examine and then put into ballot boxes.
For now, that's available mostly through optical-scan systems. There, voters mark paper ballots and feed them into machines that count votes automatically.
Exarchos, the Pennsylvania county commissioner, blames vendors for not coming up with individual paper backups for touch-screen machines. He says they ought to be able to develop the kind of printing technology that's available in any corner pub. "You walk into a bar, you get a slip," Exarchos said. "We just have to force vendors to give us what we need rather than what they have."
Supporters of the legislation said local officials should have known that they needed technology that could be auditable through paper backups verified by voters.
"A lot of counties leaped before they looked," said Rep. Rush Holt, the New Jersey Democrat who sponsored the House bill. "When states and counties say they can't do it, what they're saying is they won't do it. Where there's a will, there's the time and money to do it."
Goodman, of Common Cause, said the money would be well-spent, even for those counties that just went through rounds of purchases.
"There are costs, but there are costs to having a democracy," she said. "Let's do what we have to to get there."
ABOUT THE BILL
House Bill 811, the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007, would require individual, voter-verified paper ballots. The bill could be voted on in the House of Representatives early this week. A similar bill is in the Senate.
Among the House bill's provisions:
— Only systems with no paper ballots would have to be replaced or upgraded by November 2008. Six states would have to make changes statewide: Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, South Carolina and Tennessee. Thirteen states — Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin — and the District of Columbia would be required to make some changes.
— By 2010, any voter must be allowed to vote by paper ballot if he or she chooses.
— Scannable, durable, accessible paper ballots must be used nationally by 2012.
— Random audits must be conducted by hand in 3 percent of precincts in all federal races.
Source: Office of U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J.