Activists may not approach polling sites

Voting-machine critics must stay 100 feet away

October 23, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

A federal judge sided yesterday with state elections officials in the most recent dispute involving Maryland's new electronic voting machines, saying challengers to the new system could not approach voters or hand out literature within 100 feet of polling precincts - an area off-limits to campaigners and advocacy groups.

"For those of us who are voters, I don't think it's too much to ask for 100 feet of peace," said U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz during a hearing in which he declined to step into a dispute between elections officials and TrueVoteMD, a group critical of the state's touch-screen voting plans.

State Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone praised the judge's ruling.

"I think it would have been extremely disruptive to have a bunch of advocacy groups within the 100-foot bubble," she said after the hearing. She also re-emphasized her faith in the machines' reliability.

TrueVote co-founder Linda Schade said the organization would still monitor the election, which she said is threatened by an unsecure voting system.

"Of course we're disappointed," she said. "But TrueVote will absolutely be poll-watching."

Her group will still be able to approach voters more than 100 feet away from the precincts, and she said she would work with political organizations to get TrueVote volunteers into the polling places.

As has been the pattern nationwide, the new touch-screen voting system has been a point of controversy in Maryland, as critics call it unreliable and susceptible to tampering. TrueVoteMD is one of the most outspoken local detractors, saying state officials are covering up problems with the machines.

Yesterday's hearing comes two weeks after the deterioration of an agreement between the state and TrueVote about the group's planned Election Day activities.

In that defunct deal, the state said TrueVote members could stand in the precincts as silent "poll watchers" to look for voting machine glitches. State officials said they made that concession in hopes of avoiding litigation.

But the state later balked at the group's demand to survey voters about the machines and pass out literature within the 100-foot zone off-limits to campaigners - an area Lamone called a "safe haven for voters" - and the agreement collapsed.

TrueVote said its members should be allowed in that area because they would be collecting nonpartisan data about the touch-screen machines, not campaigning. They said the state backed out of the agreement in retaliation for the group's harsh criticism of Lamone and the electronic voting system overall.

The group sued the Maryland State Board of Elections last week, asking the federal court to issue an injunction that would allow its members into the 100-foot area.

Yesterday, Motz said he did not believe that there was any retaliation. He also said that TrueVote members had no right to be poll watchers - a role reserved for members of political parties - or to be within the 100-foot zone.

"There is hardly anything more important than a time for peace, privacy and reflection before casting a ballot," Motz said. "For 100 feet, leave us alone."

Motz said he agreed with Assistant Attorney General Michael D. Berman's point that last-minute changes to elections regulations could cause "chaos."

"If one group is in there, any group is in there," Berman said during the hearing.

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