By ERIK SCHELZIG
NASHVILLE — The state Senate is expected to vote soon on whether to delay starting a new Tennessee law that requires a paper trail from voting machines.
The Senate Finance Committee voted 7-3 on Wednesday to advance the measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfeesboro.
Under the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act passed last year, new optical-scan machines are required to create a paper trail in case there are voting irregularities. Every county in the state was supposed to have the machines ready in time for the gubernatorial election in 2010.
But proponents cite cost and technical concerns for delaying the law from going into effect until 2012.
As much as $37 million in federal funding is available under the Help America Vote Act — passed in the aftermath of Florida’s disastrous 2000 election — to purchase the machines. But several county election officials are concerned they will be stuck with costs that may exceed the federal funding.
State Elections Coordinator Mark Goins told the panel that not all county elections commissions have space to store paper ballots for the amount of time required by federal law.
Goins said he’s also worried the federal government could adopt new standards in 2012, which would leave Tennessee with outdated voting machines.
Democratic Sens. Jim Kyle of Memphis and Roy Herron of Dresden said there’s no reason why Tennessee shouldn’t be able to join more than two dozen other states that require a paper trail.
“If 27 or 28 other states can have verifiable ballots, I don’t know why Tennessee has to be in the minority that cannot,” Herron said. “If we’ve got funds to do at least a substantial part of it, or at least a part of it, I don’t know what’s more important to a democracy than to make sure it works.”
Kyle scoffed at Goins’ suggestion that delaying the paper trail requirement could allow time for the economy to rebound enough to lessen the financial burden on local governments.
“Are you saying the economic climate is going to change where local government officials are going to want to spend local tax dollars on a state-mandated program?” Kyle said. “That’s a climate change that’s never going to occur in Tennessee.”
Kyle suggested there may be political consequences for delaying the voting machine law.
“I think you’re asking this committee and the Legislature to do a very difficult thing, which is to go back to your constituent and say ’You can’t have a paper trail for elections because the budget is too tight,”’ he said.