City seeks exemption from state's mandate on voting machines

Officials want to keep 'state of the art' system

December 13, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's legislators will introduce a bill next month that would permit the city to keep its current voting system rather than conform to the statewide standard in 2006 as required by law.

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, chairman of the city's Senate delegation, said yesterday that the city has a system that works and that it can't afford the expense of leasing the Diebold system that other Maryland jurisdictions will bring on line next year.

McFadden said the Sequoia touch-screen voting system the city adopted five years ago is still "state of the art" and offers advantages over the Diebold product.

The General Assembly passed legislation in 2001 putting the state on track toward a uniform voting system. Local election boards outside Baltimore were required to adopt the statewide standard by 2004. The city was granted a delay until 2006 because it had recently bought a new system. Now city legislators and voting officials are seeking a full exemption.

Armstead Jones, chairman of the city elections board, said the city spent $6 million five years ago to buy its present system. He said the system has a useful life of 20 years, making it good for the next 15 years.

"We still feel our system is the best one out there," Jones said.

Jones recently wrote a letter to Mayor Martin O'Malley saying the switch to the Diebold system would cost the city $2.4 million in the 2006 budget year and at least an additional $2 million over the next three years.

He told the mayor it would be more cost-effective to spend $800,000 in 2005 to upgrade the Sequoia system to meet the requirement of federal law that the machines be equipped with audio equipment so that the blind can vote in secrecy.

McFadden said he expects the bill to have the support of City Hall. He said Del. Salima S. Marriott, chairwoman of the city's House delegation, would take the lead in that chamber when the Assembly begins its 90-day session next month.

The senator said the legislation has nothing to do with the dispute over the alleged security flaws in the Diebold system.

However, McFadden said there are other reasons he prefers the Sequoia product.

"We think this is better than the system that is being proposed because it is all on one screen," he said.

McFadden said the Diebold system requires voters to scroll through a series of pages to correct a mistake. He said that could confuse voters who are not used to computers.

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