New voting system sought

Panel recommends replacing machines with help of the state

23 counties affected

Glendening backing change in law to allow selection of method

March 17, 2001|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Maryland should help its 23 counties replace their voting machines with an electronic statewide system before next year's election to avoid the kind of problems that beset November's presidential balloting in Florida, a task force said yesterday.

The task force, appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, is asking the General Assembly to change the law before it adjourns April 9 to allow the state election board to select a new system.

The governor has embraced the recommendation and has told lawmakers that he will propose a supplemental budget to help pay for it.

That would mark the first time the state had helped pay for local voting systems.

"We have learned that the type of voting system used does make a difference," Glendening said.

Officials estimate that it will cost about $7 million a year to lease a statewide voting system.

Maryland Secretary of State John T. Willis, who headed the task force, said that overall, the state's electoral system is sound.

But now is the time for the state to move forward, he said, with several counties due to replace their voting systems and with Florida's drawn-out election still fresh in the public's mind.

"We need to take advantage of the public awareness and the fact we've got a lot of our jurisdictions ready to make changes now," Willis said.

It appears that the task force report will carry more weight than a similar one issued five years ago.

That report, issued by a panel formed after Maryland's tight 1994 gubernatorial election, also called for Baltimore and the state's 23 counties to abandon old-fashioned voting machines in favor of electronic devices.

Six years later, only Baltimore uses an electronic system.

The city paid $5 million for its new machines in 1998.

Three counties - Prince George's, Dorchester and Allegany - use old-fashioned, lever voting machines, and several counties use optical scanners.

No Maryland county uses the punch-card system that caused the highly publicized problems in Florida.

The task force is asking the General Assembly to give the state election board the authority - after consulting with local election officials - to select a single voting system to be used statewide.

The biggest problem in Florida was with the paper ballots.

The main headache in Maryland in November had to do with voters who had moved since the last election but did not show up in voter files in their new home counties.

Thousands of frustrated voters around the state were turned away by poll workers because of such problems.

The state has been moving to a statewide voter registration system, which should be in effect by the end of the year and should ease some of the problems with voters who change residences, Willis said.

State election officials also are working with the Motor Vehicle Administration, which handles tens of thousands of voter-registration changes, to take the bugs out of the system, Willis said.

At the same time, the task force is asking the Assembly to approve the use of a "provisional ballot" that would allow a voter to cast a vote that would be held apart from other ballots until the person's registration status could be double-checked.

"The states that have it have found it really helps the election judges and the voters," Willis said.

The task force also called for better training for local poll workers and a uniform system of counting absentee ballots.

The report notes that during the November election, Maryland had relatively few cases in which a person's vote in the presidential race was not counted, either because the person voted for two candidates or because the vote failed to register.

Florida's rate of such uncounted votes in the presidential election was six times as high as Maryland's, according to figures compiled by the task force.

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