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Around the States

Tennessee Passes Paper Ballot Legislation PDF Print Email
By Warren Stewart, Verified Voting Foundation   
May 18, 2008
Tennessee Voter Confidence Act Will Also Establish Random Post-Election Audits and Prohibit the Use of Wireless Devices in Voting Systems

On May 15, the Tennessee State Senate unanimously passed SB 1363 The Tennessee Voter Confidence Act, a sweeping reform of the state’s voting technology. Minor differences between the Senate bill and the House companion HB 1256, passed earlier in the week, are expected to be easily resolved and the bill sent to Gov. Phil Bredesen for his signature next week. The overwhelming support for the bill resulted from the steadfast efforts of state and national voting advocates and a report from the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) that recommended many of the measures in the legislation.

The bill would require that any voting system purchased and deployed in the state after January 1, 2009 use precinct-based optical scanners. The bill as amended in the Senate would use Federal funding provided to the state as a result of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) to fund the replacement of currently deployed direct recording electronic (DRE) voting systems. The bill explicitly calls for counties to purchase ballot-marking devices to meet the Federal requirement to provide voters with disabilities a means of voting privately and independently.

In addition to moving the state toward voter marked paper ballot systems, the bill will also require each county election commission, for each election, to conduct mandatory hand count audits of at least 3% of the voter marked paper ballots of at least the top race in the federal, state, county, or municipal election, if on the ballot. This bill details the procedures for the audits, including the random selection of precincts, the timing of the audits, and the public announcement of the results of the audit, and provides for additional hand count audits when the results of the first audit show a variance of more than 1 percent between the hand count and the unofficial machine vote count to resolve any concerns and ensure the accuracy of the results.

Tennessee will also join Minnesota and New York in explicitly prohibiting the use of any electronic voting equipment that has any capability for wireless communication. The would also require that all source code, software and firmware and related documentation be disclosed by voting system manufacturers through an escrow process and made available for review by independent experts selected by the commission or the Secretary of State.

While the deadline for implementation of the bill is set for 2010, there is no restriction on earlier implementation by individual counties. Bernie Ellis, founder of the Tennessee election integrity organization “Gathering for Democracy” encouraged counties to make the transiton to voter marked paper ballots as quickly as possible noting “even though the bill allows counties until 2010 to implement it, our position is, the near-unanimity of support for this bill suggests that there’s no controversy, that paperless voting machines never had a place in our elections in this country.”

While activists had hope that the mandate for new voting systems and audits would be in place in time for this November’s general election, election officials had raised concerns about forcing a rapid transition, with state primaries scheduled for August.

State election coordinator Brook Thompson, who had initially opposed paper based voting systems, expressed his support of the legislature’s action. Recognizing the concern about the accuracy and reliability of paperless voting equipment, Thompson was quoted in an article in The Tennesseean that he felt the bill’s passage will put to rest doubts about voting technology.

“Anything that can bring some closure to the debate over voting systems is probably a good thing,” he said. He also said he was glad the legislature gave enough time for statewide implementation, which if rushed could have caused a “self-afflicted crisis.”

While two Tennessee counties, Pickett and Hamilton, already use paper ballot systems as their primary voting system, the vast majority use direct recording elctronic systems manufactured by MicroVote, Hart Intercivic, Premier Election Solutions (formerly Diebold), and Election Systems and Software. It is unclear how many counties would decide to make the transition before this Fall's elections, but the funding is available as a result of the Election Asisistance Commission decision in March to reverse an earlier policy regarding the use of remaining HAVA funds to replace equipment purchased with previous HAVA funds.
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