Ruling on state balloting affirmed

High court won't order fixes to electronic voting system, says it is secure

September 15, 2004|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

With just seven weeks remaining until Election Day, Maryland's highest court refused yesterday to order security upgrades to a new $55 million statewide electronic voting system or to require paper ballots for voters who distrust the computers.

The Court of Appeals, after hearing arguments from electronic voting opponents in the morning, affirmed by early afternoon an Anne Arundel Circuit judge's ruling that elections officials had done enough to ensure the "security and secrecy of ballots."

"We were confident that the system was going to pass muster," state elections chief Linda H. Lamone said after the ruling.

The coalition of voting machine opponents -- led by Linda Schade, a founder of TrueVoteMD -- had originally asked the courts to have the 16,000 machines scrapped for the Nov. 2 election or to require a paper audit trail, as other states have done. The touch-screen computer, known as the AccuVote-TS, is manufactured by Texas-based Diebold Election Systems.

But with time running short before the election, the coalition scaled back its demands, asking instead for security fixes and optional paper ballots.

Ryan Phair, an attorney for the group, pledged he would work to put a fix in place by 2006. State law, he said, requires voting systems to have a paper record.

"The practical effect is that `good enough' is what we'll have to live with in 2004 and let's pray and hope they're right," he said.

Electronic voting machines have come under fire across the nation in the past year after a series of critical reports by computer security experts. At least one state, Nevada, purchased machines that will provide voters with paper receipts, and California will require a paper audit beginning in 2006. But legislation that would require paper trails nationwide has stalled in Congress.

Concerned about the machines' security, about 100 Maryland voters, including 21 in Howard County, cast paper ballots in the March primary, the system's debut. Deciding that the provisional ballots were cast as a protest against the new machines, a hearing officer for the state Board of Elections decided not to tally the paper ballots.

Phair argued before the Court of Appeals that there is an "avalanche of evidence" of potential problems with electronic voting.

"If it does get compromised, it presents huge problems," he said. "It is vitally important ... that no questions will be raised as to what is the outcome of the election."

Saying he didn't want security that is just "good enough," Phair called for a stricter "military" standard for computer protection recommended by a state consultant. The consultant gave the state a failing grade for not taking enough steps to protect the system.

But Assistant Attorney General Michael Berman said elections officials considered every recommendation and adopted some and rejected others.

"Did the state Board of Elections play ostrich and just put its head in the sand? No," he said. "Each report has been exhaustively studied. The state board will provide a safe and secure election on Nov. 2."

Judge Alan M. Wilner said not all the experts who testified on the system's security before the lower court shared the same opinions. So elections officials, he added, made some recommended fixes and decided others were not needed.

"It's all been challenged," he said. "The elections board isn't saying all of this makes sense. They're saying some of it doesn't make sense."

And Judge Dale R. Cathell said he wondered whether security could be taken too far.

"You could make the elections system so secure that people couldn't get in to vote," he said.

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