Critics of the electronic voting machines used in nearly every precinct in Maryland on Election Day delivered an unflattering report to the state Board of Elections yesterday, detailing hundreds of complaints they fielded as voters tried -- and sometimes failed -- to cast their ballots.
Poll watchers trained by the nonpartisan TrueVoteMD set out to collect complaints about the touch-screen voting machines that they said could not be trusted to accurately tabulate voter intent. What they said they found were even more problems unrelated to the equipment -- people who couldn't vote because their registrations hadn't been processed, people who were wrongly refused provisional ballots, people who left polling places without casting a vote because the lines were too long.
But Linda Schade, co-founder of TrueVote, said her group couldn't tally all of the potential problems on Election Day because some could have occurred where no one could see them: inside the "error-prone secret software with gaping security holes."
"Even if all these problems were resolved today, the unobservable problems will still be out there," she said. "The smoothest-seeming election could be the most flawed."
The long-stated goal of TrueVote is to see the state's 16,000 voting machines equipped with an auditable paper record of each vote, which would be seen by a voter before the ballot is finally cast. Schade's group has sued the state to force it to add the capability. She has said she hopes to see a paper trail requirement passed in the coming session of the Maryland General Assembly. It failed last session.
When she handed the report over to Ross Goldstein, deputy elections administrator, he told her, "we'll take a look at it."
Schade said her 400-plus poll watchers, who went to more than 100 precincts in 14 Maryland counties and Baltimore City, were performing a function that the state wasn't: taking stock of complaints made by voters and, in some cases, fixing problems on the spot.
TrueVote volunteers were at 6 percent of the precincts and received 201 complaints about what Schade called "machine problems" and 330 about "nonmachine problems." More than 2.3 million votes were cast. Neither Schade nor state officials could say whether there were more or fewer problems than four years ago, when optical scan machines were the norm in Maryland.
Goldstein said state officials are still looking through the Election Day call log to see what problems were collected, and will take stock of what is learned. Any report created from the more than 2,700 calls -- not all of them complaints -- would likely not be made public, he said.
Later, state elections administrator Linda H. Lamone said that although she would read the report when she gets a chance, from what her staff had told her, the report "found nothing of any significance."
"You have issues in every election, and you can't get away from them because there are so many people involved ... and people make mistakes," Lamone said.
The TrueVote report, titled "When the Right to Vote goes Wrong: Maryland Citizens Tell the Story of Election Day 2004," lists a series of problems, including lost votes caused by crashing machines; ballots that were missing candidates or entire races; and touch-screen problems such as when voters tried to vote for one person only to have the check mark appear by another candidate's name.
Howard County poll watcher Ruth Zlotowitz said she was at a county tabulation center at the end of Election Day and noticed that officials were having trouble uploading tallies off of the memory cards. Cards from three precincts were unreadable. Officials were told to send incomplete results and then forward the cards to headquarters, where the votes would be recovered. Zlotowitz said she wonders if those votes were ever counted.
Others talked about voters being turned away at the polls for a variety of reasons -- and the inconsistency from one precinct to the next as to whether provisional ballots were provided. One precinct would be stingy with them while the next would run out. One poll watcher told of going out to buy pencils and pencil sharpeners for the Baltimore precinct where she was because they didn't have enough.
But Frank Bradley, a chief judge at an Anne Arundel County precinct, said not all of the problems should be attributed to the poll workers. He said voters -- 20 percent of whom he estimated showed up with registration cards in hand and still went to the wrong precinct -- need to share the blame.
"People were not turned away," he said. "They were redirected" to the right polling place.