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Ensign says voting machine debate moot

12/5/2003 12:09 am

While people in Nevada and across the country debate whether electronic voting machines should produce a duplicate paper ballot, U.S. Sen. John Ensign said federal law already requires it.

But some including Secretary of State Dean Heller disputed Ensign’s interpretation of the law, saying it allows individual states to decide whether paper ballots are needed.

Ensign said Thursday that his amendment to the Equal Protection of Voting Rights Act of 2001 requires a permanent paper record be available as the official record for any vote recount. It also must give a voter the opportunity to change the ballot or correct an error before the paper record is produced.

“There’s nothing more important than having a valid ballot box,” said Ensign, a Republican, who lost a race to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid in 1998 by 428 votes.

In that race, Ensign requested a recount of the paper ballots used in Washoe County after it was determined paper ballots had been misprinted and scanning machines had misread some of them for the count.

Ensign said he will never be certain about the vote in Clark County because it was all done electronically.

“For electronic machines, you push a button and the question comes out with the same count over and over. No one knows whether there is a flaw in the system. Everyone has to ask themselves whether their computer at home has ever malfunctioned.”

The minutes of the Senate hearing clearly state his intent: The purpose is to provide for a system that “permits voters to verify their vote at the time it is cast and used as the official record for recounts.”

But Heller said he interprets the law differently.

The bill went to a conference committee of the Senate and the House, and U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., the bill sponsor, said on the Senate floor that there was no intent for the paper record to serve as the official record. “That’s left to each secretary of state,” he said.

And that’s the way federal elections officials now interpret the law, said Heller, who wants Washoe County to use new electronic machines for the 2004 election.

But Heller conceded a new Federal Elections Assistance Commission, created by voting rights act, will have the final say.

And U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., has introduced a bill that will produce “the voter verified paper trail.” It now has 74 sponsors.

The voters’ rights movement, however, gained steam in late November when California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley ordered county officials to use voting machines with paper ballots by 2006.

Heller said he expects to make a decision next week on what machines to buy.

He said he has received $10 million of $13 million in federal funds to buy new voting machines and prepare a statewide voter registration list. The federal funds come as part of the equal voting rights act.

Heller said he intends to buy 1,500 to 1,800 voting machines for Washoe and 15 other counties. Clark County has nearly 3,000 electronic voting machines.

The added cost for ballot printers that voters could see is about $500 per machine.

Heller said it would be a “viable option” to buy machines that have the option of adding printers later. “People are less concerned about the cost of the machinery that the accuracy of the vote,” he said.

No company has printers certified yet for use in the 2004 election.

Sequoia Voting Systems, which built Clark County’s machines, expects to have its printers certified early next year.

Across Nevada, county election officials have opposed the printers, saying the electronic voting machines have not failed. And the printers represent one more moving part that could fail.

County Commissioner Jim Galloway has led a local effort to add printers to the new machines. He, as well as Washoe Registrar Dan Burk, have said they would prefer to use paper ballots that are scanned for votes in 2004.

To comply with Ensign’s amendment, Heller said electronic machines tabulate votes and produce an internal report at the end of the election day Election Day. And voters get to look at a summary of their votes on the computer screen before signing off.

The machines sought by voters’ rights advocates would produce a paper copy that voters could see. And if they don’t like their votes, they can void their ballots and start over. All of that would be recorded on a paper scroll so votes could be counted by hand if needed.

The voting rights law was passed after George W. Bush won the Florida presidential election in 2000 by 537 votes. Problems included There were problems were hanging chads, dimpled chads and swinging chads on punchcard ballots., as well as with voter registration lists purged of black voters

“Reno was Florida two years before Florida,” Ensign said. “Washoe County was a complete disaster for Harry and I.”

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