Touch-screen display hits snag

Voting: A senator tries out the state's new system, with unfortunate results.

September 13, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski gained first-hand knowledge yesterday of potential glitches that haunt Maryland's costly and embattled electronic voting system.

Working the crowd at the Takoma Park Folk Festival, Mikulski encountered a demonstration of the touch-screen voting system, which gets its first statewide general-election roll-out in less than two months. She decided to give the AccuVote TS manufactured by Ohio-based Diebold Election Systems a try, with troubling results.

On a referendum question that is part of the sample ballot on the machine, Mikulski pressed the screen to vote "no." But her vote was displayed as a "yes."

"She pushed one answer, and the opposite answer popped up," said Stan Boyd, an election judge from Silver Spring who was coordinating the demonstration. "She can see for herself that the machine does not work right. I was so amazed."

The foul-up was more likely the result of an accident by Mikulski than a machine error, said Michael Morrill, a spokesman for the senator's re-election campaign who was by her side during the incident.

It appeared that Mikulski brushed against the "yes" button for the referendum when recording her vote on a question listed above it, Morrill said. When she got to the referendum, "yes" had already been checked, he said. To change to a "no" vote, the senator would have first had to press "yes" again, to clear that decision - which she did not do.

Still, Morrill acknowledged that the sensitivity of the screen could stymie other voters in November. "It showed that, yes, there are potential problems with electronic voting machines," he said.

This isn't the first time the senator has been involved in an electronic machine goof: During the March primary, several voters contacted her office, saying that her Senate race did not appear on the ballot. A Democrat, Mikulski is seeking her fourth term this year.

Before yesterday's demonstration, Mikulski had been concerned about the reliability of electronic voting systems, and is considering becoming a sponsor of a federal bill requiring the machines to provide paper receipts that can be verified by voters after they complete their ballots, Morrill said. Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat, has sponsored a version of such a bill.

Activists in Maryland are seeking a similar requirement here. The Campaign for Verifiable Voting and others have sued the Maryland State Board of Elections, asking that voters who don't trust the touch-screen machines be allowed to vote on paper. A lower court has rejected the argument, but an appeal is pending before the state's highest court.

Despite growing discomfort with the electronic machines, Maryland has become one of the first states in the nation to convert to touch-screen voting technology. A new $55 million system was used statewide in the March primaries, largely without incident. Election officials say the machines are safe and reliable.

However, security flaws identified by computer researchers from the Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere show that Diebold's underlying software is vulnerable to hackers.

A pro-paper trail group, TrueVote Maryland, is attempting to gain permission for its poll watchers to record problems with the machines on Election Day. Linda Schade, a coordinator with the group, said she hoped Mikulski's experience at the festival would persuade her to assist in that effort.

"This really underscores the need for poll watching," Schade said.

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