Will city ballot system mean election fiasco? Baltimore: Computerized machines do not forgive if voters make errors.

September 04, 1998

Clarification

In a Sept. 4 editorial, we wrote that if city voters fail to push a "cast the vote" button on Baltimore's computerized machines, judges would have to step into the booth to do so for them. The judges are under instructions not to do that. Rather, they have been told to push the orange (not yellow) button by reaching inside the booth, without entering it. The editorial also should have noted Baltimore County computerized its voting machines in 1996, not in 1966.

WHEN primary elections are held Sept. 15, Baltimore voters will finally enter the electronic age. It could be a disaster.

The reason: The city has purchased an untested, $6.5 million voting system that leaves no room for error. Unless voters know exactly what to do, they could end up accidentally disenfranchising themselves.

This is how the machines work: Voters no longer pull little levers next to candidates' names. Instead, they will push buttons that illuminate an arrow beside the candidate's name.

When the voter finishes, a yellow "cast vote button" must be pressed. Up to that point, a vote can be changed by pressing the button next to the candidate's name twice. After a voter presses the "cast vote button," the machine will make a chirping sound and then go dark.

What happens, though, if a confused voter presses the yellow button prematurely? After only voting for a gubernatorial candidate, for example.

"If they push the 'cast vote button,' that will be the vote. They will not have a second chance," explains the city's elections chief, Barbara E. Jackson.

Computerized systems in use since 1966 in Baltimore County (and other Maryland jurisdictions) are more forgiving. They give voters who have made a slip-up another chance. The voter simply exchanges the erroneous punch card for a new one with an election judge, who invalidates the wrong card.

In the city, election judges cannot invalidate electronic votes; whatever is entered into the computer becomes part of the city's final tally.

The city's new voting system allows for another possible snafu. A voter could easily walk out of the booth without pressing the "cast the vote" button. In that case, the votes will not be registered.

Ms. Jackson said judges would have to be attentive to make sure votes are registered. If election judges do not hear the tell-tale musical chirp from the machine, they will have to step into the booth and press the "cast the vote" button.

These kinds of potential problems with the expensive voting system are cause for serious concern. At worst, voters may feel they were deprived of their right to vote. If snags occur, lawsuits could follow.

Even if major foul-ups are avoided, voting on the new gizmos is likely to prove time-consuming because voters have to make sure they have not committed errors on an unfamiliar machine.

In the past several weeks, city election officials have been busy demonstrating the new machines at shopping centers and civic meetings. A mass mailing is scheduled to explain the intricacies of the electronic balloting system to voters. Why did city officials wait so long to begin this complicated education process?

Sept. 15 will show whether computerization has made voting easier or whether the city election board has committed a $6.5 million blunder.

Pub Date: 9/04/98

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