Making the ballot box as savvy as the ATM

Maryland: State panel seeks modern equipment in every precinct and upgraded communications.

March 22, 2001

MARYLAND ISN'T Florida. No hanging chads, no screw-ups in counting presidential votes.

But there's considerable confusion in this state over the best way for citizens to cast ballots. Nineteen counties use optical-scan paper ballots; three use mechanical-lever machines; one uses an updated scanning system; and Baltimore City uses a touch-screen electronic voting device.

What's needed is a uniform voting system throughout the state. That's precisely what a special state commission is recommending. This blue-ribbon panel prefers an ATM-like system similar to Baltimore City's.

As the panel noted, Maryland should "employ the most advanced voting systems and equipment" so the act of voting is an efficient and pleasant experience.

Right now, the commission said, Maryland "lags well behind" the technology curve.

We use ATMs every day for banking, pump gasoline via electronic credit-card transactions, use electronic checkouts at supermarkets. But when it comes to voting, this state remains very low-tech.

It's not just the voting machines. Precinct judges often can't contact local election board officials when there's a problem because all the lines are busy. Results can take many hours to tabulate. If you move, you must re-register.

These problems need not happen every election year.

Each precinct should be linked electronically to the local election board, the commission said. And local boards should upgrade their telephone systems. When voters run into problems, they deserve a prompt resolution.

The board recommends using "provisional ballots" if someone's right to vote is in doubt. The individual would cast a ballot, which would be set aside until issues are resolved later.

By December, a $3.1 million statewide voter registration system should be operating. That means voters won't have to re- register after they move. It will happen automatically.

Legislation must be passed this session authorizing the state electionboard to establish an electronic, statewide voting system. Leasing this equipment for next year, at a cost of $7 million, makes the most sense.

Two million Marylanders voted last year at 1,459 polling places. It's a complex, important undertaking. Now is the time to make the technological leap forward so more people find voting quick, easy and enjoyable.

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