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Holt’s Rush to Fairer Elections

Election Day shenanigans haunt Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.).

Holt’s father, Rush Dew Holt, a one-term Democratic Senator and career West Virginia state legislator, ran for governor in the Mountaineer State in 1952. Decades later, the controversy surrounding his father’s defeat is still fresh in the younger Holt’s mind.

“Some people believe … the election was stolen,” Holt said in an interview with Roll Call. “One of my earliest memories is the talk in the family about votes being stolen and ballot boxes being found on the riverbanks.”

Now, Holt is trying to make sure similar allegations don’t cast a cloud over elections in the digital age. Despite devoting the bulk of his energies on scientific, environmental and intelligence matters during his five terms, Holt has become a Democratic go-to guy on voting machines and election arcana.

“I tend to be a little more academic,” Holt said. “I gravitate towards things that I have a background or experience in.”

Holt suggests his interest in voting and election-related issues is little more than an intense hobby; just the sort of leisurely pastime one would expect from a former physics professor. He currently chairs the Appropriations Select Intelligence Oversight Panel and sits on the Education and Labor, National Resources and Intelligence committees. And while it can be the least enjoyable, Holt says his work on the Intelligence panel is important both to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who approached him personally to request that he head the select panel, and to his district, one of the hardest hit by the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I can’t say I enjoy it,” Holt said. “It’s something that I feel is an important duty, just because there is so much money and such important issues of life and death.

“Before Sept. 11, no one would’ve paid any attention the Intelligence Committee,” Holt continued. “Now — almost to a person — people understand that intelligence affects their lives. We lost 100 people from my district on Sept. 11. … People really understand now how well we invest in understanding the motivations, intentions and capabilities of enemies really affect them. It would be a lot more fun to spend more of my time on national parks and a number of other issues.”

A Close Call

While Holt suggests intelligence matters can be a slog, his work on environmental energy and environmental issues is just the opposite, particularly national parks located thousands of miles from the New Jersey Turnpike, which slices through his district. And, oddly enough, he said 12th district voters have been particularly responsive to his work in the area.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much the folks in New Jersey care about this. They really like the fact that I’m trying,” Holt said. “Even if they’ve never seen it, they want to know the parks are being protected.”

Despite a full legislative and oversight plate and with plenty of gray matter to spare, Holt also has become an expert in electronic voting machines and other obscure specialties few lawmakers have an interest in, let alone understand. Although he has never served on the House Administration Committee, which oversees the bulk of election-related issues, Holt also appears to have absorbed the minutiae in his free time.

“I’ve gotten more and more involved in good government issues than I ever intended,” Holt said.

While perhaps unwittingly, Holt’s interest in botched elections and shady campaigning doesn’t seem unlikely from a distance. In addition to his father’s questionable defeat, Holt had a close call of his own in 1998, the year he was first elected to Congress. After the polling place closed, Holt recalled, the county clerk misreported the vote — by accident, he emphasized — handing the victory to his opponent.

“I don’t believe it was malicious … she wouldn’t have done something quite as clumsy as trying to put more votes in my opponent’s column than were people who lived in the precinct,” Holt said. “A simple clerical error.”

Holt now has legislation pending that would prevent other candidates from experiencing the same emotional roller coaster. And although he is certain the error in his election was unintentional, he said “all sorts of mischief can happen” during an interval between when polling places close and the votes are reported.

Holt said he doesn’t get wrapped up in conspiracy theories about rogue viruses and remotely commandeered voting equipment. More times than not, he said, “there are very innocent mistakes that can change the outcome of an election,” a primary reason he has pushed for legislation requiring paper records for electronic voting machines.

Soon after the 2000 elections, when Congress began debating legislation that became the Help America Vote Act of 2002, a constituent who specialized in election technology approached Holt with concerns about some talk that Congress may unintentionally mandate electronic voting machines whose records evaporate into the ether once cast. Although he did not have a hand in crafting HAVA, he immediately understood its significance.

“Because I’ve programmed and debugged computers it’s obvious to me that a computer program can’t verify itself,” Holt said. “You have to independent verification.”

Holt said his warnings to HAVA’s drafters fell on deaf ears. And soon after the legislation passed, the train had already left the station: states quickly bought up the equipment, much of which could end up in the dumpster if Holt’s current bill passes. But with the issue settled to most lawmakers, Holt continued to carry the torch.

“Somebody’s got to do it,” he said. “So I did.”

Paper Tiger

Holt hopes his current paper trail bill will get through the House by the summer recess. The bill, Holt and other supporters claim, may prevent the ongoing headache thrust upon lawmakers and election officials by alleged “undervotes” in Florida’s 13th district in November — a process that cost millions of dollars in legal fees and continues to consume a special House task force.

Although Holt has enlisted nearly a majority of House Members as co-sponsors, passage of the measure is not guaranteed. Local governments and disability groups balk at the bill’s time table and uncertain accessibility, and are working with House Democratic leaders to address those concerns. Holt is confident the differences can be resolved by the August recess.

“The counties and the secretaries of state … said that it is going to be hard to implement this in time and that it’s too expensive,” Holt said. “We’ve made a number of concessions with regards to scheduling so that you have some basic auditability, then you can have until 2010 to be totally in compliance.”

Should the paper trail bill pass, Holt has a laundry list of election law issues he’d like to tackle now that his party is in the majority, such as other glaring holes in HAVA and a bill to curb dirty campaign tricks. Holt also wants to take on the Election Assistance Commission, a tiny agency created by HAVA that has become embroiled in numerous controversies in recent months.

“We need to figure out whether it’s not working well because of bad commissioners,” Holt said. “There are some commissioners that I have real problems with. If you’re able to undermine a bipartisan agency just by appointments then there’s something wrong with the design of it.”

Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), the ranking member on the House Administration panel, has worked frequently with Holt on election-related issues during recent years and also is a physicist, a kinship that undoubtedly has produced idle chatter Capitol Hill walls have never heard. But the two are currently squaring off over specifics in Holt’s paper trail bill, which Ehlers considers over-ambitious, a concern echoed by local election officials.

Letters opposing the paper trail bill now litter the Michigan lawmaker’s desk, but Ehlers, too, is confident a deal is at hand.

“Holt is determined,” Ehlers said.