Task force explores ways to improve voting in state

Hearing comes on heels of Fla. election disputes

January 05, 2001|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

They talked about overvotes and recounts, but elections experts stopped short of recommending a specific statewide system for counting ballots yesterday, as a task force formed to prevent Maryland from experiencing a Florida-like elections controversy conducted its first public hearing.

Instead, elections consultants Marie Garber and Roy Saltman outlined the pros and cons of vote-counting technologies and procedures.

"There is no such thing as a perfect system," Garber, a former state elections administrator, told the panel.

As the 15-member task force met at the state elections board's Annapolis offices, it became clear that it faces a thicket of questions in finding ways for Maryland to adopt a statewide elections system. For instance, are optical scanners a better investment than the computer touch-screen technology used in Baltimore? Are there better ways to ensure that registered voters successfully cast their ballots, and do so at the right precinct?

Overriding the debate was the question of how and when to make and pay for the changes. The federal government is bent on similar elections reforms and is likely to dole out grants to help the states.

The task force was formed last month when Gov. Parris N. Glendening said he would provide money to overhaul the electoral system for the 2002 state elections. Noting Florida's problems in the presidential election, Glendening called for the task force to quickly study voting systems in Maryland, where each of the 24 jurisdictions chooses its voting system and sets counting procedures.

Most of the state's counties use optical scanning equipment that requires voters to use a pen to fill in a circle or complete an arrow next to candidates' names on a paper ballot. Prince George's, Allegany and Dorchester counties used machines with levers last year, but state law prohibits their use in the future.

That requirement, along with the lessons of Florida, make the time ripe for a review of procedures, Maryland Secretary of State John T. Willis, the task force chairman, said as the hearing began.

For two hours, the task force heard a list of concerns covering everything from how voters' addresses are tracked as they move to how votes can be reliably counted and recounted.

Saltman is a computer scientist from Columbia whose 1988 call for an end to punch-card ballots was widely quoted during the Florida recount. He listed the strengths and weaknesses of various technologies. The touch-screen technology removes issues of "voter intent," and the computer blocks overvotes, in which a voter voids a ballot by mistakenly selecting more than one candidate for an office, he said. But, he said, the machines are relatively expensive.

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