With much congratulatory back-patting, Republicans and Democrats joined together in 2008 to enact a state law to eliminate the hazards of paperless, unverified electronic voting. It was hailed by all as a clear case of good-government reform.
“This may not be motherhood and apple pie, but it’s pretty close,” said Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, at the time.
But last week, the legislature effectively repealed the law before the first paper ballot had been marked. The dramatic turnabout is a victory for county election officials, most of whom always have resisted the change because of the cost of printing paper ballots.
In Tennessee, 93 of 95 counties — including Davidson — use touch-screen machines with no paper trail to verify results. Originally, the Voter Confidence Act called for replacing these by the 2010 elections with paper ballots to be marked by voters and then read by optical scanners — a system allowing for recounts and audits of the actual tallies.
At first, election officials argued 2010 was too soon to make a smooth transition. When Republicans took over the legislature in 2009 as a result of the ’08 elections, by law they also gained control of the state’s election machinery and immediately sided with county officials fighting to delay implementing the law.
Last year, the legislature voted to do just that — until the 2012 elections. Now, even that’s out of the question. The House and Senate have voted overwhelmingly to make the change the paper ballots optional for each county, meaning that it’s very unlikely to happen in any county.
“This is a colossal unfunded mandate that we’re putting on counties,” Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, said. “This bill is the best that we can do to accommodate the fiscal needs of our counties.”
Election reform activists fought hard for the law’s passage in 2008. They argue that paperless electronic voting is a virtual license to steal elections. Around the country, the horror stories are many, with miscounted ballots and malfunctioning machines.
Mary Mancini, director of the liberal reform group Tennessee Citizen Action, blames Secretary of State Tre Hargett and state Election Coordinator Mark Goins for helping lead the effort to undo the law.
“Since the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act passed almost unanimously in 2008, there has been an extraordinary lack of leadership in carrying out the law,” Mancini said. “Let’s face it, the county election administrators are not going to change the way they conduct elections on their own. It’s too bad Tre Hargett and Mark Goins won’t lead them to give what the people of Tennessee want — secure and verifiable elections.”
Democrats, who generally favor the switch to paper ballots, are convinced Republicans are trying to snuff out the law for nefarious political reasons. But they can’t quite put their finger on exactly how the chicanery will go down.
“I’m not a big conspiracy theory person,” Rep. Mike Turner, D-Nashville, told Republicans during the House floor debate. “I don’t think there’s aliens out at Area 51, and I think the president’s birth certificate was there all along, and I think they killed bin Laden, I really do. But it kind of surprises me that when we passed this bill a few years ago, the Democrats had some skepticism about it, but you guys were the ones who were pushing so much to get it passed.”
Now that the Republicans are in power, they want to undo the law, Democrats said.
“I don’t understand why there’s all of a sudden this change of attitude,” Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville, said.
Mancini once posited the theory that Republicans are plotting to suppress Democratic votes. By keeping touch-screen machines in place and putting fewer of them in Democratic precincts, they can create long lines and discourage voters, she said.
Republicans insist they merely want to avoid handing another cost to county election officials, some of whom claim that printing ballots could run them hundreds of thousands of dollars every election.
“If local governments cannot afford it this year, they may want to delay it for a while,” said Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin. “If local governments can implement it, they will. I’m sure they will. But they need a little time, not to buy the hardware, but to pay for the year-to-year maintenance, which is quite expensive. This allows locals to decide what they want to do and when they want to do it.”
Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, pointed out that Sen. Douglas Henry defeated Jeff Yarbro in last summer’s Democratic primary in this city by only a handful of votes. No real recount was possible then because Davidson County uses touch-screen machines.
“We had a state Senate race that came down to a handful of votes,” Stewart said. “I think the citizens as a whole felt very dissatisfied that there weren’t paper ballots to look at to determine who won that race.”
Lynn Greer, the Republican chairman of the Davidson County Election Commission, said Nashville wouldn’t make the switch if given the option. It would cost the county $600,000 to print ballots for a major election, he said. Besides, he added, he’s a big fan of touch-screen machines.
In making his case, he employed a bit of odd logic, contending that machines work great because there’s no proof they ever have failed to accurately count votes. That, of course, is also the key argument of election reformers: There’s no way to prove that every vote was counted because there’s no paper trail.
“Paper ballots suck,” Greer said. “I would be surprised if we went to paper ballots. The majority of the commission has been very vocal so far in opposing that. I doubt if it’ll even come up for a vote or consideration.
“There’s nothing wrong with these machines. They work just fine. There is no real proof that they are susceptible to rigging. There’s been no evidence of any misconduct with these machines. It’s the safest way to go. If I recount the votes on a machine, it’s going to come out the same every time. There’s no evidence that they are wrong.”