Buttons, lights to replace levers in city voting booths $6.1 million approved for new machines

November 06, 1997|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

Baltimore voters have pushed their last lever and pulled their last handle.

The city is replacing its antiquated, mechanical voting machines with $6.1 million worth of new devices that are sleek, cutting edge and computerized.

The new machines, which will be in place for next year's elections, are supposed to be easier to use. Their ability to tally votes quickly is expected to end Baltimore's history of lagging behind the rest of the state in posting results.

The machines are also supposed to be more tamperproof -- a feature that officials hope will prevent a repeat of 1994, when Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey sparked a controversy by alleging that the city's votes were counted incorrectly.

"As a city, we made an agreement [to buy new machines] after the controversy in 1994," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, a member of the Board of Estimates, which voted unanimously yesterday to buy the machines. "We knew that our machines were old. I think this is a real step ahead."

Not everyone is happy to trade in those clunky 3-decade-old, 900-pound machines in which voters pushed small levers next to the names of candidates and then pulled a large handle to record their vote.

"I am an advocate of the mechanical lever machines," said Gene Raynor, who retired in July as administrator of the state elections board. "I find them to be totally accurate. You can go back and see who voted."

With the new machines, the city's 320,000 registered voters will push buttons next to lighted arrows pointing to candidates' names. A computer screen will show which candidates the voter chose, and if the voter agrees with the displayed choices, a "cast ballot" button is pushed and the votes are automatically recorded.

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to operate it," said Barbara E. Jackson, the city's election administrator. "The screen will tell you everything and what you should do next. A 10-year-old could operate this system."

For write-in candidates, voters type in the name.

All votes are stored on a computer tape, which will be read by a central computer at election headquarters downtown. Vote totals can be printed out at the precinct anytime during voting hours.

Judges will no longer have the time-consuming task of totaling votes or transferring numbers to another sheet of paper. Tabulating votes from the old machines is when most errors occurred, critics allege.

After the 1994 election, Sauerbrey filed a lawsuit challenging her 5,993-vote loss to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, alleging that votes in the city were not counted correctly. Sauerbrey, who is running for the office again next year, eventually withdrew her suit.

Because of the controversy, a gubernatorial task force was formed to examine the Maryland voting process. The task force suggested that Baltimore and seven counties abandon the lever voting machines in favor of more modern equipment.

Yesterday, Sauerbrey voiced caution about the accuracy of the new machines.

"The old-fashioned voting machines had all kinds of cross-checks," she said. "Going to computer may or may not be an improvement. I would certainly have a great interest in knowing how the machine functions and operates before I form an opinion."

Most of Maryland's automatic voting machines are being phased out and replaced with paper ballots that are read by computer.

But Baltimore's new machines -- all 1,050 of them -- will forgo paper entirely. Jackson said that the new machines are designed to prevent tampering and human error.

"It stores results in two places that can't be tampered with by voters, technicians or election judges," Jackson said. "We know what is happening with the machine from the time we actually program it to the time we take our official count."

Voters in New Orleans have been using the computerized machines made by Sequoia Pacific Voting Equipment Inc. of Jamestown, N.Y., for four years.

Election officials there say the amount of time it takes to get election results has been cut by half.

But when the city began to use the computerized machines, there was a learning curve and some voters did not push the correct buttons to register their votes, the officials said.

To help combat that, Jackson said, Baltimore's new machines will be on display at area malls and city festivals so voters can get used to them.

"There is no perfect system, and there are going to be little glitches," Jackson said. "You can not foresee those things but you try to cover all those bases."

Pub Date: 11/06/97

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