Electric Boogaloo

For most political controversies, progressives don't need a scorecard to tell the good guys apart from the bad. One would expect that simple dynamic to apply to electronic voting reform, which Democrats have pledged to address during this Congress. But in fact, the thorny issue of voting machines, in the context of a shared desire for a fair, accurate election in 2008 (following one infamous election meltdown after another during the last few cycles), has rendered the fault lines in the debate over reform anything but straight and clear. Simply put, with Democratic control of Congress making meaningful progressive election reform a possibility for the first time in years, the "good guys" are busy battling each other.

The immediate issue at hand is legislation introduced by New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt, and whether it provides sufficient safeguards for voters and ensures the integrity of upcoming elections. (Broader measures to bar deceptive practices, promote election-day registration, and other reforms are moving far more slowly in Congress.) Heated charges about misinformation, unholy alliances, and looming election-day disasters are flying back and forth among rival progressives and activists who generally share the same goal of fair elections. The Holt bill, now with 200 co-sponsors, was the focus of hearings in March, and, when Congress returns in mid-April, will be marked up by the House Administration Committee before likely heading for a successful floor vote. A companion bill, with some differences, is scheduled to be introduced in the Senate by Dianne Feinstein of California this month but faces a far steeper uphill fight to pass.

The Holt bill, at first glance, seems to offer sensible solutions that many progressives have long been clamoring for; it bans paperless Direct-Recording Electronic machines (known as "DREs" or touch-screen tabulators), requires voter-verified paper "trails" and ballots, and, for the first time, mandates routine random audits of voting machine results. David Becker, the attorney who heads People for the American Way (PFAW)'s Democracy Campaign, tells the Prospect, "We believe the Holt bill in general strikes the best balance of security of election technology while at the same time providing accessibility for voters with disabilities and the minority language community."

Yet the bill has triggered an internecine war among progressives. It enjoys the backing of a wide range of influential organizations, including PFAW, Common Cause, MoveOn, Verified Voting, and SEIU. (Most civil rights groups have yet to take a position on it.) But other reformers, numerous and vocal if generally lacking the clout and organizational muscle of the proponents, have attacked the bill from two directions -- some for failing to go far enough towards the outright banning of DRE machines, and others for encouraging the use of optical-scan machines (which are believed to be less accessible to some disabled or foreign-language voters) through stringent regulation of DREs. The debate is as vituperative as it is multifaceted: One civil rights activist, concerned that the bill would pave the way for wider use of optical-scan machines that could limit minority access, told the Prospect, "PFAW has made a pact with the devil!"

The progressives' internal controversy over the Holt bill, carried out in the blogosphere, congressional hearings and even, apparently, in behind-the-scenes shouting matches, should not be dismissed as a trivial food fight among reform insiders. As veteran civil rights lobbyist and PFAW president Ralph Neas recently described this fight, "Nothing less than the integrity of the 2008 election is at stake."

Critics of the legislation can be equally categorical in their proclamations. "Supporters of the Holt bill as proposed are playing 'chicken' with democracy," says Bobbie Brinegar. "Some of the key provisions are not practical and could blow up in everyone's face -- and get in the way of quality voting system reform." Brinegar was, until recently, the D.C. lobbyist for Verified Voting, a leading election integrity group. As if to underscore the complexity of the debate, Verified Voting actually endorses the Holt legislation.

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So just who are the opponents of the bill, and what are their main critiques? Of course, the most powerful opposition comes not from ideological activists but, rather, from establishment interests and election officials -- namely, most states' secretaries of state and the leaders of the National Association of Counties, who see the Holt bill as a chaos-inducing rerun of the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA)'s touch-screen fiascoes. Given the Holt bill's originally proposed $300 million funding level (although final authorization figures might go as high as $1 billion), they consider its 2008 deadline for states to either upgrade or scrap all their DREs an unworkable recipe for disaster. They haven't forgotten how $800 million of the funds promised to states and localities under the original HAVA law were never appropriated.

But the most visible challenger to the "cult of Holt" (as some skeptics call it) has doubtless been Brad Friedman, the independent journalist who runs the popular Brad Blog that serves as the central news resource for the anti-DRE election integrity movement. "They are dead wrong on the issue of whether we should allow dangerous, disenfranchising DREs for use in our election systems," Friedman says of Ralph Neas, PFAW, and other prominent advocacy groups. "We don't want to institutionalize DRE machines for years to come," he contends. "They're antithetical to democracy." He argues that any bill that keeps them in place will only "set back the possibilities of real reform for so many years that the current status quo would be far preferable to the Holt bill as it's written."

That may sound radical, but the political landscape surrounding DREs has shifted dramatically in the last two years, making the call for banning them more respectable. Before the 2006 election, the conventional reform position was to prefer optical-scan machines but to pragmatically accept DREs with voter-verified paper "audit trails," as reflected in legislation passed in over half the states. Those favoring total bans on electronic machines were dismissed as paranoid kooks. Now, many mainstream experts, such as Johns Hopkins computer scientist Avi Rubin, have declared that DREs -- even with voter-verified paper records -- "cannot be properly audited." Academic experts like those at New York University's Brennan Center Task Force on Voting System Security have also confirmed empirically just how easily both DREs and optical-scanners can be hacked.

But the real shock to the conventional wisdom came with the open-seat congressional election in Florida's 13th district last year, in which Republican Vern Buchanan defeated Democrat Christine Jennings by a 369-vote margin, while 18,000 votes on paperless electronic machines in Sarasota disappeared. Those missing votes cost Jennings the election, which is now being challenged in court and faces a review by a special congressional panel. The breakdown was revelatory. Even if those Sarasota machines had a paper trail, many reformers realized, voting security couldn't be protected. "We used to feel that verified audit trails were going to be good enough," says John Gideon, the executive director of VotersUnite.org, a research and advocacy group and a former supporter of earlier versions of the Holt bill. "Now we will not support a Holt bill that does not ban DREs." As John Bonifaz, a voting rights attorney with the Demos advocacy group, points out, "Adding a paper trail to a DRE won't provide the kind of security our elections deserve," noting that you can't divine voter intent from a print-out from a machine that could be flawed.

Meanwhile, minority and disability rights advocates have approached the issue from a different direction, and in fact are divided among themselves as to whether or not to support the Holt bill. For them, the voting machine type that's of top concern is not DRE but optical scan.

Optical scan machines read and tabulate paper ballots that have been marked either by hand or by a ballot-marking device, and offer voters feedback if they overvote. Critics see minority-language voters facing a potential logistical and voting rights obstacle course in getting the right paper ballots. (Los Angeles County must offer ballots in seven languages). And no optical-scan machine currently has a feedback display that tells foreign-language voters in their language that they've overvoted or made other errors. Disability advocates, in turn, are worried about the sometimes trouble-prone ballot-marking devices and the roadblocks voters with disabilities face in getting the paper ballot from those devices into the optical scan machines. (Though recent machines incorporate

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