Task force proposes updating Md. elections Central registration, computerized balloting are recommended

January 03, 1996|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

A task force created in the wake of the 1994 gubernatorial election has recommended sweeping changes in Maryland's electoral process, including a statewide move to computerized balloting and a centralized voter registration system.

The task force appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and legislative leaders also proposed giving the state election board stronger authority over voting procedures now handled by 24 local offices, and it called for a complete rewrite of the state's election laws.

"There's just too much in the election laws that is arcane and redundant and out of date, and in many instances inapplicable," said George Beall, the Republican former prosecutor who headed the panel.

The 13-member task force, which included six legislators, acknowledged that many of the changes would take years to carry out and offered no suggestions for paying the large cost associated with some of them.

Some of the task force's recommendations come at least partially in response to concerns raised by Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey in her legal challenge to the 1994 gubernatorial election, which she lost to Mr. Glendening by fewer than 6,000 votes.

For instance, Mrs. Sauerbrey identified a possible security breach involving old-fashioned manual voting machines used in Baltimore City. The task force is now proposing that the city and seven counties abandon the manual machines in favor of computerized balloting by 1998.

"It's cheaper, it's quicker and it's every bit as reliable as the manual machines," Mr. Beall said. A computerized system would cost the Baltimore election office alone about $675,000 a year, according to one company that provides the machines.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Glendening said he had not yet reviewed the task force report. Mrs. Sauerbrey was unavailable for comment last night.

The 1995 General Assembly passed legislation creating the task force to examine some of the problems cited by Mrs. Sauerbrey. An investigation by the state prosecutor found no evidence of criminal misconduct during the election, although several mistakes by local electoral officials were highlighted.

In its report, the task force recommended:

* That voter registration rolls be maintained by the state, rather than individual counties, to increase efficiency and cut down on the numbers of voters registered in more than one jurisdiction -- another problem cited during Mrs. Sauerbrey's election challenge. The task force did not estimate the cost of such a system but called it "substantial."

* That the state adopt a single statewide procedure for absentee balloting that would have voters fill out only one affidavit, rather than the two required in some jurisdictions. The panel recommended that the General Assembly change this law early in the legislative session that begins next week, in time for the March 5 presidential primary.

The requirement for two affidavits led to the challenge of thousands of absentee ballots cast in the gubernatorial election, many of them by elderly people confined to their homes. The tedious process of verifying affidavits delayed Mr. Glendening's victory for days.

* The panel also called for computerizing the campaign finance records now maintained only on paper by the state election board in Annapolis. Legislators have resisted such proposals in the past in part, proponents say, because they worry about heightened scrutiny of their campaign reports.

The task force decided it did not have enough time to accomplish its primary goal -- overhauling the entire state election code -- and suggested that another panel take up to two years to study the issue.

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