Wednesday, January 13, 2010

TN paper ballot law delayed until 2012

Vote pleases local election officials; issue now goes to governor By Chas Sisk • THE TENNESSEAN • January 13, 2010 A law that would have required paper ballots in Tennessee's 2010 elections was suspended for two years Tuesday in a vote on the legislature's first day of official business. A Republican-led effort to delay the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act passed nearly a year after it was first proposed, as the Senate voted 22-10 to pass a measure that pushes its implementation off until the 2012 election cycle. The House passed an identical bill during the 2009 legislative session. The vote appears to put an end to a long legal and political battle between voting rights groups and Secretary of State Tre Hargett's office, which had argued that the law is an unnecessary burden on county election commissions. About 60 local election officials packed the Senate gallery in support of the delay. "It's the folks that work out in the ditches that were going to have been pressed to implement this," said Hooper Penuel, administrator of elections for Rutherford County. "It could have resulted in disaster, and that would not have been what we needed in Tennessee." The Senate vote means that the issue goes to Gov. Phil Bredesen, who can either veto it or sign it into law. The Tennessee Voter Confidence Act was passed in 2008 as the legislature continued to grapple with the fallout from the disputed presidential election of 2000. The law requires that all county election commissions purchase optical-scan ma-chines that use paper ballots that voters mark by hand. Proponents say optical-scan machines provide a physical record that can be tallied in the event of a disputed election. But the law passed soon after many local election commissions had purchased touch-screen voting machines that were thought to be an advancement on older machines. Supporters of the delay said the Voter Confidence Act would require the state to spend about $30 million on machines that had not yet been thoroughly tested. Election commissions, meanwhile, would have to spend thousands more on printing paper ballots, retraining poll workers and other expenses. "They don't want that burden put on them," said Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, the delay's sponsor. Four Democrats joined with 18 of the Senate's 19 Republicans to pass the delay. The vote came after Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, offered four last-ditch amendments to the bill. Any of the amendments would have sent the bill back to the House for another vote. Herron said the amendments, which included requiring that touch-screen machines have printers attached to them and that the state pay the full cost of switching to optical scanners, would have improved the bill without significant delay. "We still could have had all this resolved this month," Herron said. Backers of the optical-scan machines said Hargett and others who supported the delay had overstated the cost of new machines. They also said that optical-scan machines could have been upgraded again easily if standards were to change again in the future, at little expense. Proponents shift focus The machines' proponents probably will not continue to fight to get the machines in place this year. Instead, they will shift their focus to getting the machines rolled out in time for the 2012 election, said Dick Williams, state chairman of Common Cause of Tennessee. "We're obviously disappointed, but we're not surprised," he said. "We don't accuse anyone of ill-will or trying to subvert the vote. We just feel like some people didn't understand the facts." Some election officials, however, would like to see machines that run on paper ballots scrapped entirely. Paper ballots are far more expensive than touch screens, and they are just as susceptible to fraud as electronic machines, said Lynn Greer, chairman of the Davidson County Election Commission. "There's nothing wrong with these (touch screen) machines," said Greer. "There's no intent to defraud the people with these machines. … There's a lot of false info going on around this. These machines work fine."

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