High-tech Machines Debut Amid Low Voter Turn

September 13, 1990|By Robert Lee and JoAnna Daemmrich | Robert Lee and JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Election officials were thrilled. Reporters were peeved. And the 35 percent of county registered voters who cast their ballots Tuesday had mixed emotions about the new computerized voting machines, dubbing them everything from "newfangled" to "a headache."

Some voters embraced the new era of high-tech voting, but many said they missed pulling the levers of the old machines.

Warren Hendrix walked into the Old Mill High School cafeteria and stared dumbfounded at the bright blue booths.

"What was wrong with the old system?" he demanded as he pulled out his registration card.

Hendrix was all set for those traditional election rites: stepping into a dark booth and closing the curtain, picking the candidates and pulling the lever. Instead, the 63-year-old retired U.S. Air Force pilot was handed a felt-tip marker and told to fill in the areas next to his preferred candidates.

Worried by a lack of privacy without the traditional curtains, at least five voters called county election headquarters to complain. But election administrator Nancy Crawford said the problem could be averted by encouraging voters to use privacy envelopes, which shield the ballot until it's swallowed by the tally machine.

Other voters grumbled that they had to recast an entire ballot every time they made a mistake. Once they figured out the system though, many voters found it easier and faster than pulling the lever in the automatic machines.

"I think it was a lot faster," said Steve Hartgrove, 48, of Glen Burnie, who voted on his lunch break to avoid the morning and evening lines at the polls.

While voters like Richard Almy of Severna Park remained "ambivalent," election judges working at the 133 precincts said they felt no nostalgia for the old machines.

The system won the overwhelming support of those working the polls, because it ended the hassle of transcribing and calculating the numbers recorded by each automatic machine.

Since the computerized scanners have few moving parts, they rarely break down. They also provide three reliable audit trails if an election is challenged -- a computer chip, a paper print-out and the actual ballots.

Only four of the county's 133 precincts reported any snarls with their computerized scanners, Crawford said. Waiting in vain for glitches, four repairmen from the Syracuse, N.Y., manufacturer of the Optech II machines sat around playing "Fish" and joked they could be working for Maytag.

Election officials touting the new system promised reporters and campaign officials that returns, free of any addition errors, would be available earlier than in previous years.

But the 50 anxious election watchers trailers stuffed in an attic exile at the elections headquarters in Glen Burnie weren't impressed. Although the first results trickled in at 8:40 p.m., copies of the tallies from the first seven districts weren't available until nearly 40 minutes later.

By 9:10 p.m., Frank Marzucco, campaign manager for former Annapolis Mayor Dennis Callahan, one of four Democrats running for county executive, was nervously gripping the edge of his seat.

"Normally the results would have been sprinkling in by this time, but this has turned into a locker-room setting," he said.

Crawford blamed most of the delays on a malfunctioning copy machine. She and her colleagues at elections headquarters spent half the night jiggling the copier to keep it running.

Returns also trickled in slowly because a few precincts took longer than usual to balance their books.

"It took longer than we anticipated, but the new machines definitely saved time," Crawford said.

Copyright The Baltimore Sun 1990

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