New Jersey's Holt Says Confidence in Voting at Stake

Rep. Rush Holt (search) has become the political go-to man for the verifiable voting movement, an issue over the reliability of new electronic voting machines (search)  that has been simmering under the surface the 2004 presidential election's top headlines for months.

Holt, a physicist from central New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District, told that the worst thing that could happen in today's increasingly distrustful environment is for electronic voting machines to miscount or lose peoples' votes this November.

"If the citizens don’t vote because they either believe cynically that their vote doesn’t count, or distrust that the machine will even count their vote, it's a lost democracy," he said.

The Help America Vote Act (search), enacted in response to the 2000 presidential election dispute promised $1.6 billion in federal funds for the states to reform election systems. Among the many reforms was the introduction of electronic voting machines, which would eliminate confusion over an individual's intentions that messy paper ballots are said to cause.

Though more than 50 million Americans are expected to place their votes on an electronic machine this fall, critics point to reports showing the software on the machines is not secure, is vulnerable to tampering and is subject to undetectable miscounts.

The biggest anticipated problem and the one Holt is concerned with is that these machines do not have the capability to maintain a paper trail of how people voted in the event of a recount.

"One of the troubling indications of distrust that has arisen since the passage of the Help America Vote Act two years ago is many voters recognize that with the new electronic voting machines, there is no way of knowing that the vote that is cast is recorded. It also means that recounts are useless," he said.

"All over the country, the Internet and the wires are just humming with this issue," he said. "It’s good to know that Americans care about the sanctity of their vote."

Holt introduced the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act (search) in May 2003. It is being linked with a companion bill in the Senate introduced by Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y, and Bob Graham, D-Fla.

Holt's bill, which now has 130 co-sponsors, would require states to outfit all electronic voter machines by the November election with a printing device capable of recording all votes on paper. It also calls for surprise audits during the election in 0.5 percent of all such machines.

"I like the bill a lot — it's the best thing we have going on the federal level," said David Dill, a computer scientist at Stanford University, who runs, an advocacy organization seeking improvements to the electronic voting systems.

"I do believe that [Holt] is genuinely interested in fixing the problem," he added. "He understood the problem immediately and he’s done a good job explaining it to the public."

Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., said he is on board with Holt's legislation, and hopes to help see it pass the difficult task of getting through Congress by the election. The bill is now sitting in the House Administration Committee.

"I think it is very, very important and we'd be making a big mistake if we didn’t attend to this issue," he said.

Dill said Holt has pursued his bill in a non-partisan fashion so as not to alienate the Republican Party. Unfortunately, Holt has not been as successful on the election front. The GOP has targeted his seat, hoping to cast the four-term representative as a left-wing rubber stamp for the Democratic Party.

Holt's critics look beyond election reform. They say his votes against giving President Bush authorization to invade Iraq in 2002, against the bill authorizing the new Department of Homeland Security and against Bush's tax cuts will haunt him in November.

"A lot of people in the 12th District believe they deserve better than that," said Bo Harmon, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. .

"The voting population (in the district) has probably benefited greatly by President Bush's tax cuts and had been heavily impacted by the World Trade Center attacks (search) as well,” added Brian Nelson, executive director of the New Jersey Republican State Committee .

The 12th District, which incorporates parts of Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, Somerset and Hunterdon Counties, includes mostly affluent and middle-class white-collar families, and  is described as generally well-educated, independent minded and about 52 percent Democratic.

Nonetheless, Republican Bill Spadea (search) — so far Holt’s only challenger — says his district is filled with working families who need the tax relief and want to feel that their government is doing everything possible to keep terrorists at bay.

"He brings a personal perspective and expertise on the military and national defense issues, which obviously are on a lot of peoples' minds right now," said Harmon. "He's young and energetic and hardworking."

Spadea, a former Marine and a vice president with Weichert  Realtors, told that aside from security issues, he is concerned about the growing bloat of the federal bureaucracy, and believes lawmakers are doing nothing to keep taxes down while increasing the size of government.

"There are 435 members of Congress and each member has their own definition of a general measure of success, and it's typically, 'How much money have I spent in the district?' We really have gone down the wrong path," he said.

Greg Speed, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman, called Spadea a right-wing conservative and a terrible fit for this moderate New Jersey district, which voted for Vice President Al Gore in 2000 over George W. Bush by 56 to 40 percent.

"Spadea is way out of touch for this district," he said. On the other hand, "[Holt] is a thoughtful member of Congress, takes middle-of-the-road positions and is very much in touch with the mainstream of the district. He can take the best of the what the Republicans can give him."

Political analysts and Democrats say despite tough challenges in the past, Holt appears pretty strong in his position this year.

"Even as challenger races go, I don't know that it's in the top tier for Republican (targets)," said Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report.