While proposed changes to the nation's voting laws may not require replacing Utah's 2-year-old electronic voting machines, time-consuming and potentially expensive equipment updates would probably be necessary.
The changes could cause enough difficulties that many of Utah's county elected officials are weighing in with resolutions opposing HR811, a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., that would require all electronic machines to produce a voter-verifiable paper ballot that is "durable."
Although Utah's machines, which are manufactured by Diebold, produce a machine that has a paper ballot, election officials are worried about the durable requirement.
The other significant change could be the extent of the audits required on the machines following an election. Currently, the state requires that one to 5 percent of the ballots be audited, but HR811 would require audits of between 3 and 10 percent.
In Utah County, where small glitches interrupted the election process last November, election officials are saying the proposed change to a scannable paper ballot would be disastrous.
"We've literally spent millions of dollars to implement this machinery, and it was all accurate," said Sandy Hoffman, Utah County elections coordinator. "If they forced us to use a scanned ballot it would take us forever and the press would maybe not even get election results on election night, it would take that long."
Utah and Davis county commissioners unanimously passed resolutions on Tuesday to "vehemently" oppose HR811, as part of a statewide movement against the bill.
For last year's elections, Utah County received 1,074 electronic voting machines paid for by federal grants which cost about $3 million. In addition to that, the county has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain the machines, Utah County Clerk/Auditor Bryan Thompson said.
Davis County currently has 833 electronic voting machines, valued at more than $2.4 million, according to the Davis commissioners' resolution.
A change to optical-scan systems would likely be a waste of the $27 million it cost to buy electronic machines in Utah, said Davis County Clerk/Auditor Steve Rawlings.
Davis County's resolution urges Congress to reject HR811, citing voter confidence in the electronic voting machines, the cost to purchase and maintain the machines as well as train people to use them.
"Change to a new voting system would actually erode voter confidence in the election process," the resolution states.
A 2006 study from Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy found that 95 percent of people in the 1st Congressional District where Davis County is located felt somewhat or very confident their ballots would be counted accurately, Rawlings said.
Rawlings called HR811 a knee-jerk reaction to voting difficulties elsewhere.
"The other 28 (county) clerks feel the same way," he said If the two counties have to replace or retrofit their existing machines to facilitate using a paper ballot that can be stored for longer than two years, all of that money will be wasted, both clerk/auditors said. Currently, paper ballots are printed on thermal paper.
The thermal paper is kept for 22 months, as per state code, but election results are always verified against the ballots within about two weeks, Thompson said.
"We figured we were being proactive as a state, and we were actually going the extra mile to promote the integrity of the vote," Thompson said. "For them to say, 'We don't think that's good enough, we're going to revamp everything,' That's frustrating."
Matt Dennis, a spokesman for Holt, said that HR811 tries to prevent a repeat of problems in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, when almost 10 percent of the paper receipts were smudged during an initial handcount and could not be used for any later hand counts or audits. The bill does "prescribe specific models or materials" for printing the receipts but only requires that they can withstand multiple counts.
States would have until the 2010 election to produce the improved receipts, although any state that uses machines without a paper receipt would have to replace those machines by 2008. Dennis said there are six states that use the machines without receipt printers.
In a news release following the bill's passage by the House Administration Committee May 8, Holt said that the bill was needed for the integrity of the nation's democracy. The bill is currently waiting for floor action in the House.
"We can't afford to wait any longer to give people confidence that elections are accurate and verifiable," Holt said. "Without a voter-verified paper ballot and mandatory audits, there is no way to know whether a vote has been counted as cast, or whether it just disappears."
Joe Demma, the chief of staff for Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert, who oversees Utah's elections, said that they have concerns about the bill, although they have not officially submitted an opinion to Congress. Their biggest problem is that the durable requirement could force the state to "retrofit" the machines in a costly, and probably unnecessary, process.
They actually agree with the requirement for a voter-verifiable paper ballot, and they do not disagree with the concept of more auditing. The only problem is that, at those levels of audits, feasibility becomes an issue.
Aside from the practical problems, however, Demma said that their issues with Holt's bill is that it's federal legislation to address localized, not national, problems. Specifically, it is trying to fix problems in two states Ohio and Florida notorious for their election problems.