Voting devices focus of ads

Critics claim PR campaign is meant to shift attention from new machines' flaws

$1 million outreach program

Officials say voters need to get used to terminals

February 23, 2004|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

There are ads for them on the sides of buses, on billboards, on the radio and on television. There's a Web site devoted to them. There will be hundreds more get-to-know-you events around the state where they'll be on display for the curious.

The public relations blitz -- in full swing -- is designed to familiarize voters with the new electronic voting machines being unveiled across Maryland in time for next month's presidential primary.

Some critics of the machines, however, say the campaign amounts to a state-funded, unfiltered rebuttal to the bad press Ohio-based Diebold Election Systems has earned in recent months as computer experts have publicly criticized the company for its lax security. They have warned that the system should not be used if voters want election results they can trust.

The $1 million, five-year voter outreach program, as officials are calling it -- part of the $55 million the state is paying Diebold for 16,000 of the ATM-like devices -- is meant to be a formal introduction to the new product and to Diebold.

"We need to let our voters know how to use the system, and it becomes a much smoother system on Election Day if they've seen it," said Nikki B. Trella, election reform director for the State Board of Elections.

But critics are troubled.

"I think the money would be better spent making the system more secure instead of trying to win voter confidence through public relations and not necessarily through anything substantive," said Avi Rubin, the associate computer science professor at the Johns Hopkins University and a critic of the Diebold machines.

"This idea of a public relations campaign is showing the superficiality of their approach. They're trying to [sway] public opinion the way Coca-Cola convinces people that it's a good soft drink."

Officials with the company and the state say the campaign is hardly intended to be advertising for Diebold and its products.

Regardless of which vendor got the lucrative Maryland contract, company and state officials said, the Help America Vote Act, which Congress passed in 2002, has provisions requiring extensive voter education.

The machines have withstood scrutiny in recent months, stemming from Rubin's report last summer that outlined a series of security problems with the Diebold machines. That report was followed up with two state-commissioned studies that found many of the same problems, including one recently done for the legislature that recommended a series of fixes before the March 2 primary and November general election.

Bill on paper trail

Meanwhile, there is a bill before a General Assembly committee, which would require the addition of an auditable paper trail to the electronic voting machines. Proponents say the machines can't be trusted unless voters can see and approve a paper receipt of their votes before leaving the polling place -- something the state's machines are not equipped to do. California will be requiring the paper, which would be used in the case of a recount, and other states are considering similar measures.

David K. Bear, a spokesman for Diebold, bristles at the suggestion that the company is using the airtime and other marketing materials to answer its critics. The outreach program was in the works before the negative attention began, he said.

"It isn't talking about the complaints, per se. It's talking about the equipment and the use of the equipment," he said. "You may not change people's opinions about electronic voting, but it familiarizes them [with it]. People question when they're not familiar with things. That's why you need to educate people."

More than 1.5 million pamphlets and brochures have been printed. Hundreds of commercials are scheduled to be shown on local cable channels between now and the general election in November; some note the machines' advantages over the punch cards and their chads that played such a critical role in the 2000 presidential race in Florida.

Billboards -- like one in Upper Marlboro that reads "It's here. Maryland's better way to vote." -- have been placed in 44 sites across the state. There have been 172 events in the community, like one this month at area Giant grocery stores where voters had the chance to test the machines, and there will be 500 more coming in senior centers and rotary clubs and churches statewide. Many of those who have used the machines praise them for how easy they are to use. They said the method would allow the disabled, who previously had to be assisted with other voting methods, to have a secret ballot.

Several elections officials across the state said they hope every voter who wants to try the machine gets the opportunity before Election Day.

`A boondoggle'

But opponents of the new machines -- in many cases the loudest voices in favor of the paper trail -- are uncomfortable with what they are seeing on television and on the sides of buses.

"I can understand there being a desire to get voters familiar with it ... but taxpayers are now subsidizing a campaign to increase their comfort level with a boondoggle," said Linda Schade, a Takoma Park resident who has worked to organize a campaign against the touch-screen voting machines. "Taxpayers are funding a corporate advertising campaign and that's an outrage."

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