Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Good bills, bad bills on voting in Virginia

This year's legislative session has some good bills and bad bills. A quick overview for those who are interested...

SB 292 provides for random audits of optical scan voting results, and additional random selection (and hand counting if needed) for recounts. This is a critical change in Virginia, where current law precludes looking at paper ballots in case of recounts, and has no audits. It's not a perfect bill (the science of how to audit efficiently and to an extent that gives additional accuracy is still being refined), but it's a big step along the way of knowing who really won and lost elections. This is particularly important in Virginia, where we've had several close elections over the past few years.

SB 536 makes several small but important changes in how voting equipment is approved in Virginia. It gives the State Board of Elections the power to examine other state results in deciding what equipment should be certified, and allows the SBE to decertify equipment based on results from other states. This is important to take advantage of the studies done by California, Florida, Ohio, and other states. It also instructs the SBE to bring in experts in security and handicapped accessibility as part of the certification process.

The above bills are the primary focus for the Verifiable Voting Coalition of Virginia (VVCVa) this year. Unfortunately, we'll also be fighting off some bad bills, most notably HB 638, which rolls back the clock on the DRE purchase ban. Last year, VVVCVa worked with a bi-partisan coalition to pass a bill that prohibited wasting money by buying more DREs (paperless electronic voting systems). Considering that the move nationwide is away from DREs and towards optical scan machines, and that Federal legislation is pushing things the same way, a ban on more purchases is good financial sense. Why throw more money at equipment that we know doesn't work, and is going to be banned anyway? Just doesn't make sense.

There's also a whole series of bills (HB 467, HB 685, HB 801, HB 1476, and SB 52, which are nearly identical to each other) that in one way or another roll back the ban on wireless usage on election day, which was passed last year. While I still think that wireless usage is unnecessarily risky, many Virginia jurisdictions are suffering from the decision to use Advanced Voting Solutions for their voting systems. AVS assured the legislators last year that their voting machines could turn the wireless off before the polls opened, and then turn it back on in time to synchronize the machines as the end of the day (thus avoiding poll workers manually totaling all of the machines in a precinct when they're tired after a 16 hour day). Unfortunately, AVS's claims were false - this can't be done. AVS is in weaker financial shape than its better-known competitors like ES&S, Sequoia, and Diebold/Premier, and it doesn't have the money or the resources to fix this problem and get it certified. (Well, based on what's happening in Pennsylvania and with the EAC, they can't seem to get anything certified.)

To make a long story short, it looks like the prohibition on wireless is going to be rolled back for the pragmatic reason that the machines are too hard to use without wireless. From a security perspective, this is a bad decision, but it's probably inevitable. The key now is to ensure that no future voting systems have that same problem - and that the legislation truly allows what is needed and no more. I'll be working with a number of legislators to ensure that the legislation really says what it needs to!

So once again, an exciting legislative year in Virginia for electronic voting. If you're reading this and you live in Virginia, please contact your Delegate and Senator and ask them to support SB292 and SB536, and to oppose HB638.

[Updated Jan 17: Added links to the bills rolling back the wireless ban.]


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