House passes paper ballot bill

Touch-screen machines would be abandoned

Senate version could face hurdles

March 10, 2006|By KELLY BREWINGTON | KELLY BREWINGTON,SUN REPORTER

Maryland voters moved a step closer to using paper ballots for the fall elections when the House of Delegates unanimously passed a bill yesterday that would abandon the state's electronic voting machines.

Voting 137-0, lawmakers overwhelmingly supported a measure to replace the state's Diebold touch-screen voting equipment with a one-year lease of optical scan voting machines, which provide a paper record.

Critics have urged the state to abandon the Diebold equipment, which they argue is susceptible to electronic tampering, but legislative efforts to require a system that produces a paper verification have failed in recent years. Adopting a paper audit system received a jolt of bipartisan support when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said this week that he favored such a plan.

"This is one of the most important pieces of legislation that we have passed as it relates to election law," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip, during discussion on the House floor. "Our electoral process in the general election, as well as in the primary, must be safeguarded."

Ehrlich chastised the State Board of Elections last month for failing to confront suspected security flaws in the Diebold machines. The governor said he had lost faith in the board's ability to conduct a secure and accurate election this fall.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and other Democrats pounced on Ehrlich, saying he had switched positions on paper ballots after vetoing a bill last year that would have studied paper verifications for voting machines. They said the governor's administration supported the machines with minor security adjustments when they were introduced three years ago.

In 2003, Maryland paid more than $55 million for the equipment from Ohio-based Diebold Elections Systems and has spent millions more to maintain the system.

Democrats also accused Ehrlich of attacking Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone, whom he attempted to remove last year and who is considered a Miller ally.

"She is a well politically connected person," Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Republican from Baltimore and Harford counties, said of Lamone, who has called the Diebold machines secure and accurate.

Harris and other Republicans have criticized Democrats for pushing legislation last year that made it difficult for the governor to replace Lamone.

Despite the swell of support for paper voting records in the House, the bill could face hurdles in the Senate, where some lawmakers think political loyalties could affect the outcome.

"Any attempt to change the system has met legislative problems over the last few years," said Harris, who supports a move to optical-scan machines. "Part of my skepticism is whether the leadership is really behind changing the system." Harris fears that the state's voting system won't be changed by the time the General Assembly adjourns next month.

"What I envision as the ultimate road mine is the House passes it, the Senate passes it, but there is an inability to resolve a compromise in a conference committee," he said. "Everyone goes home saying they supported a paper trail, knowing full well that nothing was going to happen."

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Democrat from Baltimore County who sponsored a bill requiring paper verification, said this week that she wants such a bill to pass but that it would require negotiation.

"We'll get the House bill, we have my bill, and we will work from there to find a solution," she said.

Advocates for election system reform praised House lawmakers yesterday for passing the bill but acknowledged that it could be tough to convince some senators.

"The real game is going to be in the Senate," said Linda Schade of TrueVoteMD, which has criticized the Diebold equipment.

She said members of her grassroots group are working with Democratic voters to put pressure on Miller and other Democratic lawmakers who they think do not support the legislation.

Hollinger's Senate committee will review the legislation today and will offer a demonstration of the state's electronic voting equipment with a printer prototype. Attaching a printer to existing machines to provide a paper record has been discussed, but Diebold officials have said that such a product would not be ready for the fall election.

Harris said the demonstration could be a sign that the committee is not serious about the paper record bill.

Hollinger said the demonstration is an attempt to gather more information on the current system.

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

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