Official urges that city keep voting machines

McFadden asks exemption from using state's model

January 24, 2004|By Stephanie Desmon and Ivan Penn | Stephanie Desmon and Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

City officials want to keep the electronic voting machines that have been used throughout Baltimore since 1997 instead of trading them in for similar, often criticized equipment that will make its statewide debut for the March presidential primary.

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, an East Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the city's Senate delegation, said yesterday that he is introducing a bill that would allow the city to indefinitely use its system, manufactured by California-based Sequoia Voting Systems, rather than replace it with the new machines, which Maryland bought for $55 million last year from Ohio-based Diebold Election Systems.

Although the rest of Maryland was required to buy the new touch-screen machines last year, Baltimore is exempt until 2006 because it so recently bought an electronic system. By 2006, however, the city must follow suit. McFadden hopes to change that, saying he thinks the machines -- which the city paid $5.6 million for -- are sufficient.

"Our interpretation is the law says it just has to be compatible," McFadden said. "All we're saying is ours is compatible."

Diebold's system has been widely criticized in recent months for various security vulnerabilities. A study conducted by the state of Ohio discovered software and hardware flaws in voting equipment designed by four vendors, including Diebold and Sequoia. Maryland's Department of Legislative Services is conducting a study of its Diebold machines at the request of Senate and House committees.

One thing the study will explore is whether the state should move toward what is called a voter-verified paper trail, essentially a printout of each ballot cast that can be reviewed and retained by the voter. Critics of electronic systems say such a move would increase confidence that ballots are being recorded properly. The Sequoia system owned by the city doesn't have this audit trail, but the company will be among the first in the nation to offer the feature to its customers.

Karl Aro, executive director of the Department of Legislative Services, said his office has not studied the Sequoia machines.

"I would think it would be important, if not necessary, to subject the Sequoia system to the same kind of examination before making it permanent in Baltimore City," he said. "We weren't asked to look at this particular type of equipment."

Barbara E. Jackson, the city's elections director, told the city's House delegation yesterday morning that it would be best to keep the machines the city has. She said she hasn't encountered any problems during the many elections in which they have been used.

"This machine is as secure as you're going to get in a machine," she said later. "It's not that I dislike the other machines, but if you have something that's working ... why change? This machine has proven itself. The other one has not."

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