- We got those touchscreen machines all over the country after the 2000 election made a national spectacle of the problems with punch card voting machines, but Massachusetts had its statewide spectacle of the same thing four years earlier, with the 1996 election for Congress. Back then, most of Massachusetts used punch cards. Bill Delahunt narrowly lost in the 10th district, and after a recount of a few selected portions of the district, he was still behind, but he took it to court and the court called for a full recount. When all the ballots in the district were re-counted by hand, Delahunt won, and in the process, Massachusetts saw hanging chads and all the other problems that Florida showed the country in 2000. By the 2000 election, all of the punch card machines in Massachusetts had switched to optical scan.
But Somerville was one of the few places in MA that already used optical scan before the 1996 spoiled election. Mike Capuano had been elected mayor in 1989, by a narrow margin, and although there had been no controversy about the vote count in that election, he saw the potential problem and felt strongly that we needed a reliable vote counting system that people could trust, and that could allow for real hand recounts if needed. As mayor, he made Somerville the first place (I believe) in Massachusetts to switch from punch cards to optical scan.
Capuano recalled how he’d had to scramble for money to replace Somerville’s voting machines. Somerville was not a rich city, and it was tough to fit this into the budget, but he felt it was very important, and had to cut some things he’d rather have not.
Now, this Holt bill was going to make lots of federal funding available to any election district that had touchscreen machines, regardless of whether they could afford the upgrades themselves – including many places that had splurged on touchscreen voting machines because they had money. Capuano felt very strongly that the federal funds should be means-tested, focusing on helping places (like Somerville back when he was mayor) that would have trouble affording voting machine upgrades, without giving the bulk of the money to rich counties that didn’t need it.
Okay, I thought, that’s reasonable. I want a federal law requiring paper, but means-testing the federal funding for it sounded like a good idea. So I called Rush Holt’s office.
It turns out that Rush Holt agreed that it would be better to means-test the funds. However, his bill wasn’t actually adding a lot of money. In 2002, the Federal “Help America Vote Act” – which was passed in response to the 2000 election scandal, and which spurred a lot of places to buy touchscreen voting machines – had made a few large pools of federal funding available to places that had punch card or other bad old voting machines. HAVA said nothing about requiring paper, and Holt was partially fixing that flaw. The funding Holt’s bill made available was actually mostly from what was left over from the original HAVA funding pools; in other words, in addition to requiring paperless voting machines to be upgraded to add paper, he was also modifying the rules on an existing pool of funding for upgrading voting machines, to say that money could be used for these upgrades, but could not be used to buy paperless voting machines.
Holt thought means-testing was reasonable, but felt that if adding yet more restrictions on a pool of money that was already available to all these places, would bring more opposition. In addition to members of Congress who didn’t care for requiring paper, he’d also get opposition from members of Congress whose districts were eligible for HAVA funding but would lose access to most of that funding under the new restrictions. Holt preferred to fight one battle at a time, and to take a positive step that had a chance of passing, rather than add more rules to it that might make it better but would give it no chance of passing.
I got all the data from Holt’s office: What portions of HAVA made funding available, the sizes of all the funding pools, how much was left in each one, how much money Holt’s bill was adding, and so on. I called Capuano’s office again, and gave them all of that, along with what I thought was the right way of looking at this:
- The lack of a requirement for paper was a flaw in the original HAVA legislation, and the lack of means-testing of federal funding was a flaw in the original HAVA legislation.
Rush Holt was attempting to fix one of these flaws; while he’d be happy to fix both, he was quite sure he couldn’t get the votes to do that. It wasn’t fair to blame Holt’s bill, which aimed to fix one of HAVA’s flaws, for not fixing another, separate flaw. It wasn’t actually adding a significant amount of new funding, so whether it passed or not, almost the same amount of money would be available without means testing anyway.
Capuano’s office thanked me for the call, and said they’d pass along everything I’d said to the Congressman.
Shortly after, Capuano co-sponsored Holt’s bill.