Bill to Change to Optical Scan Voting Machines Advances

A paper ballot, or at least a verifiable paper trail to prove a voter has cast a ballot, is the aim of several bills that state lawmakers acted on today.

A Senate committee approved a bill that would change the state’s voting equipment to optical scan machines that would count paper ballots. Senator Joe Haynes says the machines are in use in only two counties in the state – Pickett and Hamilton.

“…and working very satisfactorily. I think everybody’s scared to death of paper-verified ballots, but after you get used to the idea, it’s a great idea. Because this is the way to ensure voter confidence, that their vote will actually be counted as cast.”

Haynes says the state is holding about thirty-five million dollars that can be used to change the machines, if Congress approves the concept nationwide.

The bill was deferred in a House committee until February 19th – that’s when members want to see a demonstration of an optical scan machine.

A bi-partisan study committee of the legislature recommended such a change, after it found voter confidence lacking over the last year.

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Part of the problem of changing over the system is the timing – quick or steady? Haynes says the changeover might occur this year.

“It’s going to require all current voting systems as soon as practical, but no later than the General Election of 2010. And I very frankly am still optimistic that we can do it before the General Election this year …though every time I say that, our state election coordinator and our secretary of state start having heart palpations ….and I understand that….

Chairman Bill Ketron: I see his jacket moving now….

Haynes: He’s suffering down here on the first row, and I know how they feel, because this puts all kinds of pressure on them.”

Haynes says being able to use the $35 million is key.

“And we hope that the federal, that Congress is going to give us permission ultimately to use those funds, which will more than pay for the conversion to the optical scan machines. But that’s the reason we want it to go to Finance. That’s where this issue….I don’t want to take away from your discussion here, but that’s where the real meat will be put on the bones.”

Haynes is the sponsor of the main bill. But several measures deal with paper ballots, or paper trails for computerized vote-counting:

SB 1363 by Sen. Joe Haynes/HB 1256 by Rep. Gary Moore and others. As amended, the bill calls for all balloting to be done on “optical scanner” machines by 2010. The voter would fill out a paper ballot, like penciling in the dots on a standardized test, and the ballot would be fed into an optical scanner. The scanner counts the votes, but the paper input stays in the system. Up to 3 percent of the vote would be manually counted as a random check of each day of voting.

Election Coordinator Thompson says this technology has already been approved in Tennessee and that the state can change over to statewide optical scanners by voting season of 2010 – although he says trying to change for the 2008 general election invites “unintended consequences.”

This bill was approved by Senate State & Local Government but was deferred until Feb. 19 in the House State & Local Committee. Thompson is supposed to show up that Tuesday with an optical scanner, to demonstrate the machinery. The changeover is expected to cost up to $25 million, but federal funds may be available if the U.S. Congress decides this session to require paper-trail ballots.

SB 0824 by Sen. Jack Johnson/HB 1282 by Rep. Susan Lynn and others. A less comprehensive bill that simply says when a new voting system is purchased, it must be one that allows a paper verification. The bill was recommended in Senate State & Local Government Committee and was discussed by the House Elections Subcommittee. State Election Coordinator Brook Thompson says this bill doesn’t force any county to buy new machines – it only states what kind of machines must be purchased in the future. Thus the bill doesn’t show a significant cost (“fiscal note”).

SB 0012 by Sen. Doug Jackson/HB 0017 by Rep. David Shepard. A bill to allow any Tennessean to vote absentee by mail, without the necessity of a doctor’s excuse or being out of the country, etc. Jackson argues that it makes voting more convenient. Thompson says the state has embraced “early voting,” the in-person visit to the polls in the two weeks leading up to the election, with such enthusiasm that more absentee voting by mail probably wouldn’t amount to a huge change.

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