Lawmakers debate paper versus electronic voting

General Assembly


Three days after House lawmakers unanimously passed a bill to abandon Maryland's electronic-voting system in favor of paper ballots, the manufacturer of the touch-screen machines offered a plan it said would provide the confidence of a paper record at a fraction of the costs required by the proposed legislation.

Diebold Election Systems said it could replace 5 percent of Maryland's electronic voting machines with models attached to a printer. Swapping out about 1,000 of Maryland's voting machines with the printer-equipped version would cost about $5 million, a fraction of the estimated $12 million to $16 million for a one-year lease of a paper-ballot system required by the House bill, company representatives said.

But Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and House lawmakers criticized the Diebold plan, saying it doesn't promise a secure and accurate election.

"The governor does not believe that is even close to a sufficient solution," said Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman. "The governor believes we need a solution that protects every vote, not 5 percent of the votes."

Board of Elections Chairman Gilles W. Burger called the new proposal "an interesting option," but said he is concerned that it might violate a state law that requires a uniform elections system.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat who supports the House's proposed optical-scan system, said Diebold's option does nothing to fix machines that she said are riddled with flaws.

"It doesn't matter if we have printers for these Diebold machines; they are inherently insecure," she said. "If something were to go wrong, we would never know it"

Representatives for Diebold said the new models would offer a large enough sample size to determine if any Election Day glitches occur.

"We are very confident there will be no anomalies," said Michael Morrill, a representative for Diebold and former communications secretary for former Gov. Parris N. Glendening. "But this would build confidence in the veracity of the machine and give the public an opportunity to test whether paper trails add to that confidence."

Morrill said switching to an optical-scan system six months before an election is a "recipe for chaos."

Diebold, which has consistently defended its machines, which resemble automatic tellers, demonstrated the old and new models yesterday for a Senate committee that is considering the paper-trail bill. The equipment was used in nearly every jurisdiction in the 2004 elections.

Supporters of an optical-scan system -- the technology that would be leased under the House plan -- said the Senate's demonstration was an indication that the upper chamber is reluctant to go with the House proposal.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat, who sponsored a paper-trail bill similar to the one in the House, said yesterday that she was eager to see the Diebold demonstration to understand all the available options.

"We are considering everything," she said.

The Diebold offer is the latest development in an increasingly political battle, which will determine whether voters use pens and sturdy paper or computers this fall to cast their ballots.

Ehrlich entered the dispute three weeks ago when he said he no longer had faith in the State Board of Election's ability to conduct an accurate and tamper-free vote this fall.

Democrats accused him of trying to confuse voters as a political ploy and attacking Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone, whom he has tried to remove.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers have said the paper-trail bill could have a tough time in the Senate because Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller is considered an ally of Lamone's.

The State Board of Elections has stood by its estimated $90 million investment in Diebold machines, saying they are sound and secure. Replacing the system would require testing and certification of new machines in addition to educating voters and elections personnel.

But advocates have been pressing the legislature for years to ditch the Diebold system, which they say is vulnerable to hackers. Maryland should replace them before it's too late, they say.

"The rallying cry now is: `Diebold out of Maryland,'" said Linda Schade with Takoma Park-based TrueVoteMD. "It's unbelievable. They should not be signing any more contracts with Diebold, they should be suing Diebold."

Burger stressed that whatever the system, Maryland must come up with a final plan for this fall's election as soon as possible. Local election supervisors are concerned they may not have enough time to prepare, he said.

"They are stressed out," he said. "When the rubber meets the road it will be the local elections directors and their staffs that implement the election."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.