Machine politics

March 14, 2006

Three months ago, a Finnish computer expert successfully hacked into an optical scan voting machine in Florida. Now, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and members of the House of Delegates seem to believe this same technology is a far better choice for the coming election than the state's touch-screen voting system. Why? That's a good question. Because while there are legitimate security challenges posed by touch-screen machines, including the absence of a so-called paper trail, these shortcomings pale compared with the problems spawned by this 11th-hour push to replace them with optical scan machines.

Even the most skeptical Luddite understands that it's far easier to manipulate paper ballots than encrypted memory cards. And optical scan machines have already proved to be less reliable - misreading poorly marked ballots, for instance - than the extensively tested $90 million system the state has put in place.

This is no time to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. The hysteria over touch-screen voting has been fueled by Republicans who think crying voter fraud helps them politically and Democrats taking marching orders from Montgomery County Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the influential House Ways and Means Committee. To even think about converting to optical scan equipment just six months before the primary is a recipe for disaster.

It's up the Senate to take a more levelheaded approach. Diebold Election System's offer to replace some of Maryland's voting machines with printer-equipped versions to evaluate their performance might prove helpful. Certainly, it makes more sense than spending $12 million or more for a less-accurate, less-secure, and less-accessible way to cast a ballot this fall.

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