Paper ballots from 100 may go uncounted

Officials say judges erred in offering alternative to new machines in primary

21 from Howard County affected

Protesters demand votes be tallied, question use of touch-screen devices

May 20, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

About 100 Maryland voters who requested paper ballots for the March primary because they did not trust the state's new touch-screen voting machines may never have their votes counted.

The provisional ballots they filled out at their polling places during the primary election have been rejected by local elections boards, which determined that they could not be used for that purpose. State officials say that county election judges erred in offering the paper alternative.

Twenty-one of the disputed ballots came from Howard County, and angry residents there are demanding that the votes be tallied. They should not be disenfranchised, several argued yesterday at an administrative hearing in Annapolis, just because they question the technology behind the contentious touch-screen system that was unveiled statewide in March.

"I was not told that my vote would not be counted. That is just plain wrong," said Helen K. Kolbe, a retired United Nations official who is challenging the Howard County Board of Elections to get her vote counted. "By any logic, my vote should be accepted, or quite simply, it is fraud and a stain on our electoral procedures."

Kolbe and 20 other Howard residents were victims of a communications breakdown that prevented last-minute instructions from the state about the use of paper ballots from reaching hundreds of election judges in precincts throughout the county, yesterday's hearing revealed.

The hearing also showed that an effort by an advocacy group questioning the integrity of electronic voting machines might have backfired in some cases.

The Campaign for Verifiable Voting had urged thousands of its supporters to request paper ballots to create a verifiable paper trail. Under state law, the requests should have been denied - as they were in many cases.

But in some instances they were honored by election judges with incorrect information, producing the opposite result that the group was seeking. Instead of helping to ensure the validity of the election outcome by creating a paper trail, the votes are sitting uncounted, preventing those who cast them from participating in the electoral process.

"That is not what we were planning to do," said Linda Schade, a co-director with the campaign. "We are not happy about it."

Yesterday's testimony illustrated the issue that continues to embroil the electronic voting machine issue as the nation gears up for its first presidential election since the disputed 2000 vote.

Maryland is among the first states to implement a statewide electronic system in the aftermath of the election, choosing the AccuVote-TS manufactured by Diebold Election Systems of Ohio

But questions about the integrity of the Diebold systems have continued since a team of Johns Hopkins University researchers revealed security problems with the software a year ago. More recently, California's secretary of state decertified a version of the Diebold machines for use there.

The Verifiable Voting activists were organizing a protest in the weeks leading to the March election. In an e-mail to supporters, the group told voters with questions to ask for paper ballots at polling places.

The ballots were created in the aftermath of the 2000 election to address the needs of voters who arrive at polls and find that their name is not recorded. Under state law, the ballots can be used only if "the individual's name does not appear on the precinct register."

Robert Ferraro, a leader of the effort, said he had hoped that group supporters would file election protests after being denied paper ballots. But in many cases, the requests were granted.

State officials learned of the protest effort, and on Feb. 20, 11 days before the primary, distributed a list of "last minute instructions" to local election boards.

Instruction No. 4 addressed the provisional ballot issue: "Do not issue a provisional ballot to a voter who simply does not want to use the DRE [electronic] voting equipment. The voter can either use the DRE voting equipment or forfeit his or her right to vote."

Those instructions never reached Howard election judges. Voters testified yesterday that they received puzzled looks when they asked for paper ballots in March, but ultimately got them - and were not told that their votes would not be counted.

"The very people who disenfranchised me are sitting in judgment of my complaint," said Roger Pierce, a retiree and Vietnam veteran. "I sense we are losing our democracy. ... We will not sit and have an election where the vendors of election machines tell us who won. We will not stand for it."

Guy Harriman, chairman of the Howard elections board, said there was no way to inform the county's 700-some poll judges, since training sessions were held weeks earlier.

"Normally, instructions come out much earlier," he said. "This was a very unusual situation. It was simply because of the newness of the machines."

The Howard board voted unanimously to reject all provisional ballots filled out as a protest against the electronic machines.

Donna Duncan, head of election management for the state elections board, said state law requires a uniform voting system, and no legitimate way exists for protesters to cast votes using an alternative method.

Voters could use absentee ballots, but run the risk of perjuring themselves if they request such a ballot but do not meet requirements.

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