Judge refuses to block state's use of electronic voting machines

System is deemed safe despite lack of paper trail

September 02, 2004|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

An Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge rejected yesterday a challenge to Maryland's new electronic voting system, saying officials had done enough to "ensure each vote is counted and the security and secrecy of the ballots remain intact."

Allowing voters the option of casting paper ballots - one of the plaintiffs' top requests - would "cause much confusion and is clearly against the public interest," Judge Joseph P. Manck said in a seven-page ruling.

The state elections chief, Linda H. Lamone, hailed the ruling.

"We're grateful that the court has ratified our confidence in the voting system," she said. "Now we're able to proceed with everything that we need to get done" before Election Day.

The plaintiffs, a coalition of voting-machine opponents, plan to file an appeal today in hopes of forcing changes to the system in time for the Nov. 2 election, said their attorney, Ryan Phair.

"This system is a train wreck," said the lead plaintiff, Linda Schade, a Takoma Park activist and a founder of a group called TrueVoteMD. "I've been on this issue for a year, and the testimony [in this case] made me even more concerned than I was before. Without a paper trail, Maryland voters cannot have confidence that the election results are going to be secure."

Schade's attorneys were asking the judge to force state officials to address a list of security problems and to allow voters to opt for paper ballots instead of the new technology. The judge rejected both requests.

The group also claimed officials acted improperly in buying the machines last year for more than $55 million from Diebold Election Systems and failed to heed their own experts' warnings about the system's vulnerability to attack.

Because the machines provide no paper record of votes cast, questions have also been raised about whether the ballots can be checked in a recount. Similar concerns in California led that state to require paper ballots to back up its electronic systems by 2006. Nevada, Ohio and others are also requiring paper backups.

In Maryland, the machines got their biggest test in the March 2 primary, in which they were used in every jurisdiction except Baltimore. Elections officials reported few problems, although some complained of key races missing from their ballots and of pushing buttons for one candidate only to have a vote appear for another.

Manck said he considered but rejected the idea of requiring a paper ballot in Maryland.

"In any election, the mere suggestion a vote would be lost, or not counted, is a harm the government cannot ignore," Manck wrote. But, he added, the "exorbitant cost" of preparing a paper ballot alternative "far outweighs" the possibility that anything untoward would happen.

"In a perfect world, perhaps, this should be done, and perhaps the legislature should review same; however, the overwhelming factual evidence clearly shows there have been no verified incidences of tampering with these machines anywhere in the United States," he wrote.

"The votes have been counted accurately. Recounts have occurred with complete accuracy, and there is no reason to believe this will not continue."

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