Voting system is described as `unstable'

New counting devices may be leased for '02

Howard County

January 12, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County's 12-year- old voting system is "unstable" and could fail during the next election, a county election official told the County Council yesterday. But Maryland elections administrator Linda H. Lamone said that trying to buy a new system now might be ill-advised.

While a gubernatorial committee and the General Assembly decide on a standardized statewide voting system and funding, Howard County might consider leasing new equipment for the 2002 elections, Lamone said.

Robert G. Antonetti, Howard's elections administrator, said he is worried about the county's Op-Tech II paper ballot voting system, because parts for the electronic counting machines are not available and the county had to hire software technicians from Alabama for the presidential election.

The technicians said they cannot guarantee that the current system will continue to function, Antonetti said. "We're sort of shooting craps" if Howard's system is used again, he said, noting that most election workers were trained as clerks, and that the salaries here are too low to attract workers competent with high-technology devices.

Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, questioned why Howard's system is worn out, because the machines are used only every two years. But Antonetti said sitting unused is harder on electronic ballot-counting machines than frequent use.

$3 million requested

"It's like flying an airplane - you don't know what's going to happen," Antonetti said, as he pushed for action at the council's monthly administrative meeting in Ellicott City's George Howard Building.

The county elections board has asked for $3 million in next year's capital budget to replace the system, but Lamone said companies that manufacture the equipment are small and likely will not be able to fill the large numbers of orders expected after the November election problems in Florida.

The $3 million request was based on the expectation of buying a more advanced electronic system, such as the one used in Baltimore, Antonetti said.

Money needed by July 1

But, for a new system to be ready by the September 2002 state election primary, Antonetti said, money must be available by July 1 and a contract ready for bids. Gov. Parris N. Glendening's committee will not issue a report before Feb. 9, and Glendening and the General Assembly would then have to decide how much state money to set aside for Maryland's 24 jurisdictions.

Antonetti "is between a rock and a hard place," Lamone said. "You don't want to force him to use equipment and have it fail. That would be disastrous."

However, she added, the county shouldn't spend $3 million before knowing what kind of system the state approves.

State funding unknown

Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, asked if the state would reimburse the county if a new system is leased or purchased before state funding becomes available. Lamone said she does not know how much state money would be available, or how it would be divided. Montgomery County, the state's most populous jurisdiction, also is looking to replace an old punch-card voting system, which could cost up to $15 million.

Lamone suggested that because 16 Maryland counties use a newer model of the system used in Howard, leasing might be the best option, if only on a short-term basis. Three counties - Allegany, Dorchester and Prince George's - must change systems before 2002, because their old mechanical lever machines are no longer accredited by the state. Lamone said that if those three jurisdictions decide to lease voting systems briefly, Howard could join them and lower costs.

Easy transition foreseen

If the newer model Op-Tech III system is leased, county voters could make an easy transition because the method of voting is the same - connecting the head and feathers of an illustrated arrow. The only difference, said Joe Torre, the state board's voting system certification coordinator, is that Howard's ballot shows two columns of items, while the newer version has three.

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