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Virginia Bans New DREs in First Step Toward Verifiable Voting PDF  | Print |  Email
By Ivy Main, New ERA for Virginia   
April 15, 2007
Last week Virginia Governor Tim Kaine signed legislation prohibiting local governments from buying new direct record electronic (DRE) election machines starting July 1, 2007.

After that date, localities needing new election machines as their populations grow or their DREs break down are expected to turn to optical scanning machines that read paper ballots. Legislators hope this the gradual phase-in of the new system will ease the financial strain of purchasing new machines, while moving the state in the direction of verifiable voting.

The state’s current DREs do not produce a paper record of individual votes that permits voters to verify that their votes have been properly recorded, and that can be preserved for auditing the machines or recounting close elections. By contrast, precinct-based optical scanners allow voters to verify their votes, and the paper ballots can be preserved as a “paper trail” for audits and recounts.

As initially proposed, the Virginia legislation called for the changeover to optical scan to occur by 2010, and would have required election officials to conduct audits to ensure the accuracy of the machines. Cost concerns, as well as intense opposition from registrars, led to the elimination of these provisions.

The final bills passed both the House and Senate by wide bi-partisan majorities, but were almost derailed when the state association of electoral boards and the registrars persuaded Governor Kaine to offer an amendment to the bills which would have delayed implementation of the ban until July 1, 2008. While some registrars told legislators they “could not be ready” to stop buying DREs by this summer, others candidly admitted that their real purpose was to gain time to try to reverse the ban in the 2008 legislative session.

Advocates of verifiable voting responded with their own lobbying push to shore up support for a ban this year. The bills’ patrons, Senator Jeannemarie Devolites Davis and Delegate Tim Hugo, held a press conference attended by members of several citizen groups, including Virginia Verified Voting, the League of Women Voters, New Era for Virginia, and the Southern Coalition for Secured Voting. A citizens’ campaign of letters, phone calls, and personal visits also sought to remind legislators that Virginia remains at risk of a Florida-style election disaster as long as its reliance on paperless machines continues.

Nonetheless, the pressure from local registrars and election officials caused many legislators who had supported the bills to vote for the delaying amendment. Party politics also played a role; although the DRE ban drew bi-partisan support, the bills’ sponsors are both Republicans, while the governor is a Democrat. Some Democratic legislators who had been among the staunchest supporters of the bills as they passed the House and Senate voted for the delaying amendment out of loyalty to the governor.

When the vote was taken, the amendment passed in the Senate, but failed in the House by a vote of 49-49. The bills went back to Governor Kaine, who signed them this time around.
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