Lawsuit filed over observers at polls

TrueVote, state differ on issue of questioning in 100-foot zone

Group challenged new voting machines

Maryland officials say plan violates `safe haven for voters'

Election 2004

October 13, 2004|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

The same group that challenged in court the security of Maryland's new electronic voting machines went to court again yesterday, this time saying the state is unjustly keeping it from installing poll watchers in hundreds of precincts on Election Day.

The federal lawsuit comes a week after state election officials had agreed to a plan to allow TrueVoteMD members to stand silently inside polling places and watch for potential glitches with the state's oft-criticized touch-screen machines.

But the deal fell apart when state officials drew the line at allowing other TrueVote observers to ask questions about the machines and pass out literature within a 100-foot area directly outside the precinct doors where campaigning is prohibited by law.

Attorneys for TrueVote, which sued unsuccessfully to have the voting machines decertified before the Nov. 2 election, say this is a First Amendment issue, that elections officials are retaliating against the group because it has been so critical of the $55 million voting system. With the election less than three weeks away, they hope for a quick hearing.

"It's very important to TrueVote to find out whether these machines are working or not, and to do that, they have to ask voters," said attorney Daniel D. Williams. "TrueVote is being targeted because of its public speech on this important public issue."

Linda H. Lamone, the state's elections administrator, said she won't allow TrueVote to intimidate voters in the area she calls a "safe haven for voters."

The only activity allowed in the 100-foot zone is exit polling for the news media, which Williams said is much like what TrueVote is trying to do. The pollsters "are actually asking people who they voted for," he said. "We're just asking, `Did the machines work?' If anything, it's less intrusive."

Lamone disagreed. "Exit pollers are neutral parties. They're just gathering information," she said. "They're not there advocating a position on anything. These people [TrueVote] are advocating a position. ... These people are intent on disrupting this election."

TrueVote has recruited 300 people to be Election Day poll watchers and co-founder Linda Schade said she expects to double that over the next three weeks. The group has held three training sessions and is planning 13 more.

In Maryland, groups that are allowed to designate silent observers inside polling places include the state Board of Elections, local election boards, candidates, political parties or "any other group of voters supporting or opposing a candidate, principle or proposition on the ballot."

TrueVote said it fits into the last category, advocating a principle. But elections officials say their guidelines exclude "not-for-profit political organizations" and "issue advocacy groups" such as TrueVote.

Rules regarding poll watchers vary by state, said Will Doherty, a spokesman for the California-based Verified Voting Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan election organization.

"We encourage election officials and state legislators to open up the election process," he said. "Without that kind of transparency, it's difficult for the public to have the full confidence the elections are being conducted securely and reliably."

Schade's goal is to collect as much information as possible about how the voting machines work in their biggest test to date. Computer experts, even some hired by the state, have said the machines are vulnerable to hackers.

TrueVote has developed a form for voters to fill out if they have problems with the machines, and Schade wants her people to be able to reach voters before they are lost in the partisans with campaign literature who will be standing outside the 100-foot barrier.

Schade says she worries the machines will inaccurately record votes or crash as people are casting ballots. She wants to know if voters are presented with a complete slate of races to vote on -- in the March primary, she said, voters in three precincts reported that Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski was not on their ballots.

"The board is in denial of the problems and refuses to do the documentation and quality control," she said.

Lamone said she had no problem with Schade's data collection. "If they do it outside the 100-foot limit, they can do anything they want," she said.

Lamone said her office negotiated with TrueVote because she wanted to avoid more litigation.

"We negotiated in good faith and they obviously didn't," Lamone said.

Said Schade: "We were not trying to pick a fight here. Just because they don't like what we say doesn't mean they can discriminate against us."

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