I thought that today's news about e-voting and legislation is notable as an example of the way voting technology and policy interact in our unique U.S. voting system.

First, what was Congress working on? Crafting legislation about elections; one bill to authorize payments to states for efforts to put in place paper ballots or paper audits for the November 2008 election, and another that effectively over-rules 21 states' regulations requiring a voter to have a valid "excuse" to qualify for an absentee ballot (a.k.a. vote by mail).

Second, what was accomplished? Just one step to law - the House Administration Committee approved two bills (HR 5036 and HR 281) to be sent to the Floor of the entire House for debate. Of course, there are many other steps on the long road to the making of a law, including floor vote(s) and House passage, then similar actions in the Senate, etc. And of course, the President ultimately has to sign the legislation into law.

Third, why do I think it is interesting? A couple reasons, including contrast. Both bills are expressions by Congress of how states and counties should conduct Federal elections, at a fairly detailed level that could create some standardization of practices. That's important because (as you've read here) one reason for U.S. voting technology dysfunction is that each county can more or less do their own thing, and vendors have nearly free rein in terms of what they suggest to counties that their "own thing" should be.

That's another step in a trend of Federal activity towards reducing the effects of what I've called "balkanization" of Federal elections. But the interesting contrast is between the two bills. The second bill would, if passed, be a step toward standard practice of vote-by-mail -- every state would have to allow it and admit it as "vote by mail" that anybody can do, rather than "absentee voting" for people who pass a needs test. The first bill, by contrast, provides funding as an inducement for counties to make changes to election practice in a way that (by at least implication) Congress believes is a positive change in elections. But states could decide to pass on the offer, or take the offer but allow counties to opt out or in as the laws of each state vary.

The comparison is useful to show where (and where not) Congress can act towards nationwide standards. It's interesting to note that the heavier hand is about a change in practice that is fairly controversial at a basic level, (e.g., how important is a secret ballot, really?) while the lighter hand is about how technology should be used to automate an existing practice.

I'd sure like to see which of the two seems more important to people outside the voting-geek space!

-- EJS

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