Touch-screen machines don't worry most in Md.

84 percent are confident in their accuracy, but just as many want paper trail

Election 2004

October 28, 2004|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Despite the frenzy of criticism over the state's new touch-screen voting machines, most Maryland voters are confident that the ballots they cast on them on Tuesday will be counted accurately, according to a Sun poll released today.

But as many think it is important that those same machines be able to provide a paper record of their vote - something the machines don't fully do - the poll said.

Half of the registered voters surveyed said they have used touch-screen machines in the past, but 84 percent are confident in the new technology.

Maryland bought the machines for $55 million last year and next week marks the first general election when they will be used in nearly every precinct in the state.

The purchase, however, has not been without controversy: Computer experts, some hired by the state, have said the Diebold AccuVote TS machines are vulnerable to hacker attack and manipulation.

With 84 percent of registered voters saying it is important to have a paper record of their vote - one they are able to see before casting their final ballot and one that can be used in recounts - it could give new life to a bill that failed to pass the Maryland General Assembly last session which would have required the tangible audit trail. The poll, conducted by Ipsos-Public Affairs of Washington, has a 4-percentage-point margin of error.

"The computer can get it wrong," said Avi Rubin, the Johns Hopkins University computer scientist who first pointed out flaws in the Diebold software. "That's the reason the voter has to look at the paper."

Linda H. Lamone, the state's elections administrator, said the computer can be programmed to print out a snapshot of each ballot cast, but critics say that isn't enough because voters don't know that their votes were properly recorded by the computer. If the machine gets a different number after a recount, it is considered a malfunction.

The apparent confidence in the machines, she said, likely is because of the extensive voter outreach by her agency, including bringing them to supermarkets and local festivals for people to try them out and doing testing in public events.

"Once people see it and see how easy it is to use, I'm sure it goes in large part toward making them feel comfortable with it," Lamone said.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat and a co-sponsor of the paper trail bill, said she thinks the results are seemingly contradictory - that people trust the machines, but want to add the paper security measure - because of the complexity of the issue.

"I'm glad that people are not overly worried about this, because we don't want it to keep people away from the polls," she said. "But the experts ... say these machines are subject to tampering and that is unacceptable, regardless of what the poll may say."

She and the bill's sponsor, Montgomery County Democrat Karen S. Montgomery, have said they will introduce it again in the session starting in January.

Paula Hackeling, 70, a Roland Park retiree, is one of those in the minority. She told pollsters that she remains concerned about the electronic voting machines. "I feel like they can be manipulated. There's no trail," she said. "Where there's an opportunity for finagling, it could happen. I'd like to have a much more secure system."

Sun staff writer Jill Rosen contributed to this article.

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