Voting machines did fine

as for those humans ...

New system's glitches mostly blamed on people

Election 2004

March 04, 2004|By Johnathon E. Briggs and Tricia Bishop | Johnathon E. Briggs and Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

The morning after Marylanders made their first foray into the world of touch-screen voting, some local precincts had yet to report their vote tallies yesterday, while local election judges urged the state to streamline how data are collected from the new voting machines.

State elections officials declared the new electronic system a success, but critics renewed their call for a paper trail to verify votes.

In general, most agreed the voting machines performed as expected. But glitches, mostly human, slowed vote counts and raised doubts about the system's reliability. All but 11 of the 1,787 precincts had turned in their results by yesterday morning, according to the state Board of Elections.

In some counties, polling judges were unsure of how to report the primary results. In Anne Arundel, some data cards that held vote totals were left locked in a polling place overnight. Faulty telephone lines delayed Baltimore County counts until early yesterday.

Ten percent of Prince George's County tallies were a mystery approaching midnight, while information from one of Howard County's precincts remained missing until midmorning yesterday.

While the gaffes highlighted the challenges of voting-gone-digital, state elections officials said that none of the hiccups was a "show-stopper," and that many of the errors involved humans -- not the 16,000 Diebold AccuVote-TS touch-screen machines that were used across the state Tuesday. Baltimore City is scheduled to switch to the Diebold machines in 2006.

"We had virtually no technical issues at all," said Linda H. Lamone, administrator of the state Board of Elections. "Most of the elections judges did a terrific job. Can we get better? Sure, we can always get better, and we will. We got a lot of praise."

Maryland spent $55 million for the ATM-like devices after the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida, but Linda Schade, co-director of Takoma Park-based www.truevotemd.org, said that there were "clearly problems" Tuesday night, and that state elections officials owe a full explanation.

PR `gloss-over'

"I'm tired of this [public relations] gloss-over," said Schade, whose loose coalition is backing a General Assembly bill that would require the addition of an auditable paper trail for the machines. "If there was a need for a recount, it couldn't be done."

Local election directors such as Howard County's Robert J. Antonetti Sr. said the state Board of Elections needs to simplify the method of transferring the voter data from the local precincts to the state's electronic server.

"It's too complicated," Antonetti said. "There's so many things they're concerned about -- security for one -- but if you can't get that data transferred and something goes sour, you've got a massive problem on your hands. And it's an hour before we know anything's gone wrong."

For example, by 1 p.m. yesterday -- 13 hours after the polls closed -- election officials in Prince George's County were still tallying ballots after election judges in 15 of the 209 precincts failed to properly transmit their results using a modem. They instead drove their memory cards to regional collection sites.

The county's assistant elections administrator, Alisha L. Alexander, said human error was to blame. Although they had two-hour training sessions, she said, some elections judges were unsure how to transmit the tallies -- stored on memory cards about the size of a credit card -- to the local elections office. Some simply chose to fill out required paperwork first before reporting the ballots.

Others did not tally the results from all of their machines. Still other judges who decided to drive the results to a regional office arrived after the 11:30 p.m. closing time. The tallies then had to be driven to the county elections board in Upper Marlboro for transmission to the state elections office.

Anne Arundel County was one precinct short Tuesday night when the election judge left the data cards at a Glen Burnie precinct.

In Howard County, election officials had to deliver voting data to headquarters when the network servers went down at the last minute.

Antonetti said things were sailing along Tuesday and he expected the votes to be counted and winners declared by 9:30 p.m. -- 10 p.m. at the latest.

Misplaced results

But the server that was supposed to start collecting data via modem soon after 8 p.m., when the polls closed, malfunctioned, and precinct judges had to drive the electronic information, stored on 786 disks, to election headquarters. It was after midnight when the last of those cards was downloaded, but results from one of the precincts had been misplaced and not counted by 10 a.m. yesterday.

Antonetti's staff had tested the system 17 times in various precincts during the week, and all tests worked except for one, and that problem was repaired.

"We told the judges if after three tries they have a problem to drive it over," Antonetti said. "Thank God we did.

Phone lines

In Baltimore County, about half of the county's 214 precincts were wired to send electronic results to the board of elections by modem. But Tuesday night, some of those phone lines were not working, said Jacqueline K. McDaniel, the director of Baltimore County's board of elections.

Judges from precincts without modem connections had to collect data cards from the voting machines and drop them off at one of three county locations. Then, elections workers from those spots periodically delivered the cards to the election board's Catonsville headquarters, where more workers scurried to try to connect precinct information with the main tally.

Confusion over reporting aside, the experience of using the new machines received rave reviews from blind voters.

A voice-guidance system on the machines presented ballot information to the blind via headphones, allowing them to make selections with a keypad.

Sun staff writers Ryan Davis, Stephanie Hanes and Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this article.

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