Electronic machines, ballots to face off in test

State wants to prove accuracy of voting system

October 13, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Board of Elections is pitting its electronic voting machines against hand-counted ballots in a contest designed to prove that the new system is every bit as accurate as the old.

In an attempt to change the minds of voting machine critics, state officials will hold "parallel tests" starting today in six county elections offices. State officials, representatives of the League of Women Voters and members of the public will check randomly selected machines and compare their accuracy against paper ballots.

"It will show, basically, that there is no error, and if there is an error, it will show human error," said Mary Dewar, a spokeswoman for the elections board.

Critics of the new $55 million voting system, manufactured by Texas-based Diebold Election Systems, say computer glitches or malfeasance could imperil the accuracy of the election. Aviel Rubin, a Johns Hopkins University computer scientist, said the tests are helpful but won't fundamentally change his mind about the system's integrity.

"It's a very positive thing that they're testing them," Rubin said. "They shouldn't be using them, but given that's not going to change at this point, this is one of the things they can do."

The tests will be done in Howard, Calvert, Anne Arundel, Allegany, Talbot and Baltimore counties. Here's how they will work:

A volunteer will randomly select one of the new ATM-style voting machines. Other volunteers will fill out paper ballots with the same candidates and ballot questions.

One group of election officials and volunteers will read the paper ballots while another group casts identical votes on a touch-screen machine. A third group will hand-tally the paper ballots and compare the results to those from the voting machine.

The effort is not substantively different from other accuracy tests the state is performing, but it is more visible, said Ross Goldstein, head of the state board's candidacy and campaign finance division. The idea is to directly counter critics who worry about the system's accuracy.

"This is a very public way of demonstrating how secure this is," Goldstein said.

Similar testing will be done at the state board's office in Annapolis all day on Election Day using four randomly selected voting machines from Montgomery County, officials said.

Rubin said parallel testing is "a great tool," but has limitations. Insiders determined to foul an election could program bugs into the machines that wouldn't be detected by the test, he said. They could program the software so that it starts misbehaving only after being triggered by a person touching parts of the screen in a particular order. They could also program the machines to change only a small percentage of votes, a bug that might not show up in the state's test, he said.

The League of Women Voters offered to help with the test because members are concerned that criticism of the machines will drive down voter turnout in the November election, said Lu Pierson, chairwoman of the state league's voter service.

"The more confidence the voters can have, the better," she said.

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