In 2008, an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Nashville passed the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act (TVCA), joining the growing national trend of 26 other states requiring voter-verifiable paper ballots and "optical scan" machines to read them for all Tennessee elections.
At last, Tennessee voters would have a "paper trail," a concrete record to check the accuracy of a vote count in case of computer glitches, recounts, and allegations of fraud.
Since then, a few election officials have done their best to stonewall this reform, refusing to implement it, calling for its repeal, and using misleading information as ammunition. Flyer readers saw this last week in the guest Viewpoint of Shelby County election administrator Rich Holden.
With the help of local lawyers like Shelby County commissioner and University of Memphis law professor Steve Mulroy, we're going to court on behalf of Common Cause Tennessee to try to force these officials to obey the law.
Holden uses inflated figures — estimating Shelby County's paper ballot costs at $400,000 per election. But Hamilton County has been using paper ballots for years at a cost of less than 25 cents a ballot and uses estimates of likely voter turnout to determine the number of ballots to print. Using those parameters, the highest-turnout race in Shelby County's election cycle would cost less than $100,000 and most elections far less. The estimate provided is inflated by well over a factor of four.
Holden also argues that federal dollars will only pay for one machine per precinct, so Shelby County will have to pony up for extra machines. But in counties where optiscan is used, you don't need more than one machine per precinct.
Critics further complain of costs for storage and handling of the paper ballots. But the reality is that where counties switched from touch-screen to optiscan they've saved money, because there are far fewer machines to store and maintain, the machines themselves are cheaper and easier to maintain, and the machines need to be replaced less frequently.
Most incredibly, Holden complains that optiscan will be a slower process because of the need for "ballot on demand" machines to print out ballots. In fact, though, optiscan dramatically reduces wait time for voters.
Right now, a touchscreen voter toggling through screen after screen of a lengthy Shelby County ballot can take as long as 15 minutes to vote, while long lines of waiting voters stream out the door. You can only let from one to three voters vote at a time, depending on how many expensive touch-screen machines you can afford at a given polling location.
With optiscan, 15 voters at 15 privacy carrels can pencil in their choices at their leisure, causing no delay. When they're done, they feed their ballots into the optical reader in literally less than a second. No wait.
Ultimately, it shouldn't matter what election officials think: The law says they have to implement optiscan by November 2010.
But election officials have gotten clever, arguing that the law's text allows only machines federally certified to 2005 standards, and no such machines exist.
This would be an effective argument if that's what the law really said, but it's not. Nowhere in the TVCA's text does it say "2005 standards." It uses the phrase "applicable voluntary voting system guidelines," a technical term that both the federal certifying agency and the federal statute which created it make clear can refer either to the 2005 standards or to 2002 standards, for which plenty of certified machines exist.
State election officials have gone out of their way to interpret the TVCA to make it impossible to implement. This flies in the face of the basic principle of statutory construction that a law should be interpreted to resolve internal contradictions and make it enforceable.
We can't explain why the current Republican leadership of the Tennessee General Assembly and its appointed election bureaucrats, who only last year embraced "paper trail" reform, are now so determined to kill it. We can only hope the court will tell them to obey the law.
In the meantime, Flyer readers deserve the facts about "paper trail" reform, not self-serving distortions.