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Iowa Senate Approves Paper-backed Voting System

This story was written by Dylan Boyle, Iowa State Daily
The Iowa Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to appropriate $4.9 million to be spent on replacing touch-screen direct-recording electronic voting systems, or DREs, to new optical-scan voting machines.

With the new optical-scan voting machines, voters will fill in bubbles for the candidates they want, then feed their ballot into the machine, which reads the ballot using "dark-mark logic."

"With touch-screen DREs, the vote is counted electronically and never touches paper," said Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, who floor-managed the bill.

He said the benefit of having a paper trail is, if the state ever needed to conduct a recount, it could do so because the votes are backed up on paper.

Ultimately, Danielson said it will "raise the voters' trust level" in state elections.

After the 2000 presidential election, the federal government passed the Help America Vote Act, which required polling places to have secondary voting machines to accommodate visually disabled voters.

When this was passed, many counties in Iowa purchased touch-screen DREs to meet this requirement. Iowa Secretary of State Michael Mauro. said a number of counties in Iowa have already made the transition.

"Of the 99 counties in Iowa, 21 counties currently use all optical-scan machines, 19 counties use all touch-screen DREs, and the 59 remaining counties need to replace the touch-screen DREs used for the secondary option," Mauro said.

Mauro said handicapped voters will now have the option of using a "ballot-marking device" that assists voters by reading the ballot through headphones then marking the ballot for them after the voter selects their choice using a touch screen.

After the machine marks the ballot, the voter takes the ballot and inserts it into the same optical scan machine as everyone else.

"The benefits of this are immense," Mauro said. "It would be great to have all of Iowa using the same system."

Altogether, the bill is a $9 million joint effort of the state and county governments, with the state paying $4.9 million for optical-scan machines, and counties paying for shipping and installation costs.

The only senator to oppose the bill was Sen. Steve Warnstadt, D-Sioux City, who said he agrees with the purpose of the bill, but not with how it's funded, because the appropriation comes from the infrastructure fund.

"We took money out of existing construction projects - which makes these projects more costly in the long run," Warnstadt said.

Majority whip Sen. Mark Zieman, R-Postville, said he voted for the bill but is also concerned about funding.

"Secretary Mauro assures me that there will be enough funding, but I still worry about the counties having to pay for this," Zieman said, who plans on working with Sen. Warnstadt on the funding issues.

In the future, federal funding may be available if the federal government passes legislation, which both Mauro and Danielson said is possible.

"The way the bill is written allows for federal funding to reimburse the infrastructure fund if Congress passes legislation in the future," Danielson said.

Funding is a major issue, but for some, having an accurate and trustworthy election process is much bigger.

"The way I look at this is, Iowa is an important state because we are first in the nation to caucus - so we have an obligation to be a leader on this issue," Sen. Danielson said.

"We need the logic of one person, one vote, one system."
© 2008 Iowa State Daily via U-WIRE