Wednesday, February 15, 2006
House Approves Paper Ballot Requirement
By Barry Massey/
SANTA FE Counties would be required to switch to paper ballot voting systems but without a specific deadline for doing so under a measure approved by the House early today.
With time running out on the legislative session, the bill returns to the Senate for consideration and possible final approval if senators agree to changes made by he House.
The proposal passed the Senate on Monday and the House expedited its handling of the measure.
Gov. Bill Richardson advocates the move to paper ballots for all voting statewide to help rebuild public confidence in elections.
The bill, as approved by the House on a 38-24 vote, does not set a firm deadline for counties to move to paper ballot voting systems.
Instead, the switch will be required once there's enough money state, local or federal to replace existing equipment, obtain needed software, to buy the paper ballots for all counties and cover an estimated $3.7 million in loans that counties have for existing electronic voting machines that will be eliminated.
With the proposed paper ballot system, voters fill in a space on the ballot for the candidate they want to vote for. The voter then feeds the ballot into a tabulation machine.
Currently, there's a mix of voting system used by New Mexico's 33 counties. Some rely on electronic voting machines but also use paper ballot systems for part of voting.
The 2000 and 2004 presidential elections have fueled a national debate over electronic voting machines and whether they are subject to tampering that could alter votes.
Activists who oppose the use of electronic voting machines contend that paper ballot systems are more reliable, provide better information for postelection auditing of results and may be easier to use for some voters.
Rep. John Heaton, D-Carlsbad, said Eddy County has used paper ballots successfully for six years.
"This is a very, very simple reliable process,'' said Heaton. "It is clearly the easiest, best way to go.''
However, Rep. Justine Fox-Young, R-Albuquerque, argued that paper ballots and optical scanning tabulation equipment have caused problems in past elections.
"You're still dealing with technology. You're still dealing with human error. I would argue that you can have much more significant error with paper ballots,'' said Fox-Young.
According to the secretary of state's office, 12 counties use the proposed system in which voters are given paper ballots that are tabulated by an optical scanner machine. All 33 counties use the system for mail-in absentee voting and for early voting in some counties.
The cost of the proposed change remains in dispute.
Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Las Cruces, estimated it will take $20 million to buy equipment to tabulate the paper ballots, software and the ballots.
Some county clerks say the cost could be far higher.
Opponents of the paper ballot requirement said the proposed legislation likely will cause New Mexico to contract with just one equipment vendor because other suppliers may be unable to provide machines that can meet federal and state certification.
"This stinks to high heaven,'' Rep. Dan Foley, R-Roswell, said of the prospect of a "sole source'' contract with a machine vendor.
Richardson has suggested that the state provide $11 million for the change to a paper balloting voting system. There's about $9 million in federal money available to buy voting machines that can be used by handicapped and language minority voters.
The Legislature adjourns at noon Thursday, and the paper ballot measure is one of the governor's priorities.
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