A reliable, verifiable vote in 2008

In November 2008, voters will go to the polls and choose the next president of the United States and their representatives to Congress — or will they?

According to Common Cause, more than a third of our states still use voting machines that do not support hand recounts and provide no auditable paper trail. “One person, one vote” is the hallmark of America’s democracy, but to make sure that our next president is elected by people, not by the malfunction of an electronic voting machine, we must immediately move to a durable paper-ballot system backed by regular audits in every state in the nation. For these reasons, Congress should quickly pass H.R. 811, the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007, introduced by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and cosponsored by more than 220 Democratic and Republican members of Congress.

Every federal election since 2000 has clearly shown that these machines can and do malfunction. In New Mexico, in 2002 these voting systems lost the votes of almost 13,000 citizens, and in 2004 they failed to register the candidate of choice for many voters. If there is no accurate and verifiable paper record of voter intent, there is no accountable means of determining a winner. Worse still, voter confidence is damaged and diminished. Any elected official’s authority is only as strong as the voter’s belief that the election was won fair and square.

In 2005 a grassroots coalition of concerned New Mexicans demanded action — and we acted. Working together with these citizens and the state legislature, I fought for legislation to increase voter confidence in our democracy through specific and concrete measures. We improved and standardized training for poll workers. We established statewide standards for provisional ballots to ensure that voters in low-income areas will not be disenfranchised. We made absentee voting fair, simple and uniform. And we established a random, statewide 2 percent audit of voting machines.

One year later, I signed a bill to move New Mexico to an all-paper-ballot system using optical scanners to count votes. We ended the hodgepodge of systems that confused voters and raised questions about reliability.

New Mexico’s conversion to a paper-ballot system made sense. Paper ballots are the least expensive, most secure form of voting available. For people with disabilities, ballot-marking devices were available at every polling location to ensure that every voter was treated equally. Voters who required assistance to vote in their native language, such as Navajo, could also use ballot-marking devices. Using optical scanners meant quick and accurate results, while at the same time paper ballots became the permanent, verifiable, durable record of the vote.

Congress should expect any transition to be met by demands for transitional funding and a go-slow approach from some state and county election officials. Any bill should indeed include full funding to transition and maintain paper-ballot machines, and ongoing funding for manual audits — as the Holt bill does. That includes reimbursing those states that have shown leadership and moved to a full-paper-ballot system. I call on Congress to go further and provide funds to train volunteers, staff and election officers to use the new machinery.

Congress must also resist demands for a go-slow approach that unduly delays the sensible, pragmatic approach in the Holt legislation. In New Mexico, within eight months of mandating a voter-verified paper-ballot system statewide, we held elections that were accountable and verifiable.

That result is due in no small part to the diligent and committed work of state and county election officials, and the poll workers in each of our precincts. To ensure the integrity of our next election, America must move to a paper ballot system by 2008, not 2010.

One person, one vote is in jeopardy if we do not act boldly and quickly. It’s time we undertake national electoral reform that restores confidence in our electoral system and our democracy.

I urge Congress to pass and fully fund the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007, to go a step further and fund training for election officials, and move America to a reliable and verifiable paper-ballot system now.

Richardson, a Democratic presidential candidate, is the governor of New Mexico.