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House Paper-Trail Bill Stalled for Now

House Democratic leaders continued to keep the controversial paper ballot bill in the freezer this week in the face of continued opposition from local elections officials, and they have demanded that proponents get firm commitments backing the bill before bringing it to the floor.

Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), the sponsor, said he’s been pushing to convert people who are officially undecided but likely to vote for the bill into firm “yes” votes, and he said he’s not far from having the votes he needs to satisfy the demands of Democratic leaders.

Although some Members have been squeamish about openly supporting the bill, other rank-and-file Democrats strongly support it and are deeply suspicious of the electronic voting machines manufactured by companies like Diebold.

“I think voters want something done and I think vendors don’t,” said Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.), arguing that vendors are worried they’ll lose business.

Davis said he and most voters would prefer a paper ballot to an unverifiable electronic voting machine. “I know I voted because I filled out a paper ballot and put it in the ballot box,” Davis said. “We need to remove any doubt.”

The bill already had been delayed for weeks and faced internal Democratic criticism. Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) only signed on after New York was allowed to keep its lever machines until 2010. Other states would have to have a voter-verifiable paper ballot or paper printout by next year’s presidential election. That has drawn opposition from state and local elections officials who are concerned about the costs and risks in changing their systems so close to the elections.

Holt contends that without a paper receipt, there is no way to verify whether votes are being properly counted by electronic voting machines.

Republicans, meanwhile, jumped on the troubles with the voting bill as a sign of Democratic disarray. “The voter bill is a terrible bill,” House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) said. “Now it’s off again. It only got on the agenda when they agreed to exempt the chairman of the Rules Committee’s state.”

More than 10 trade groups representing election, state and local officials sent a letter Tuesday to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) asking that Democrats dump the bill. They argued that overseeing elections is a state matter and said the measure would impose “an unfunded federal mandate of unknown proportions.”

Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), ranking member of the House Administration Committee, said in a statement that “the desperate, last-minute scramble we are witnessing to further amend this flawed bill, in an attempt to piece together a majority vote in the House, is playing dangerously with our vital election processes.” Ehlers urged Democrats to start over.

Holt dismissed Ehlers’ criticism.

“He’s been saying you don’t need anything but an electronic record. I don’t think American voters will be confident with an electronic verification of an electronic vote,” Holt said.

He said of his bill: “This is plain paper. That’s something the public knows and trusts.”

Holt said local elections officials like the electronic machines because they seem cleaner, but that doesn’t mean they are more accurate or reliable.

“They say ‘we’ve never had a problem with these machines,’” Holt said. “My answer is, how do you know?”

Matthew Murray contributed to this report.

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