Paper ballot bill crumbling

Electronic voting machines seem likely to be retained

General Assembly


The Maryland General Assembly appears close to abandoning a proposal for paper ballots this fall, opting instead to retain the state's electronic voting machines.

For months, a bipartisan group of politicians and advocates has clamored for a voting system that provides paper audits. Without them, they assert, it would be impossible to detect whether the state's Diebold Elections System software had been hacked or had produced inaccurate results.

The measure seemed on a fast track to approval after the House of Delegates unanimously voted last month to switch to an optical scan system, and the governor included money in his budget to pay for it.

But the Senate is on a different course, and it appears unlikely the voting issue will be resolved by the time lawmakers adjourn on Monday.

Republican lawmakers and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. say they are frustrated by the inaction and are concerned that this fall's voting could be riddled with problems.

Worries about the voting machines, they say, are compounded by a series of election changes adopted by the Democrat-controlled legislature - including measures to enable voters to cast provisional ballots outside their home jurisdiction, and to allow some polls to open five days before the election.

Democrats overrode Ehrlich's vetoes of those measures early in the session, arguing they would encourage voter turnout. But Republicans fear a darker outcome.

"What we've done in a series of bills is ... set up an environment that should someone want to come into Maryland to stir up voter fraud or try to steal an election, we have the classic situation to allow that to happen." said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip from Southern Maryland. "I just hope that for political reasons these folks have not jeopardized our democracy."

House lawmakers of both parties hoped a new voting system would assure accuracy and security. But the Senate has not moved on the House bill and, twice this week, lawmakers postponed a floor debate on a Senate version of the measure.

At one point, Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat and head of the committee that considers elections issues, proposed a mail-in election modeled after an Oregon system. But lawmakers nixed that idea.

Hollinger insists she wants paper-trail legislation to pass, but is concerned that the manufacturer of an optical-scan system will not be able to deliver the equipment by the September primary. But other lawmakers, including Sen. Andrew P. Harris, the Republican whip from Baltimore County, think she is trying to kill the effort.

Meanwhile, an aggressive grass-roots group is pressing legislators to adopt a paper-trail system. Members of TrueVoteMD have spent weekends in the Baltimore County district of Hollinger - a candidate for Congress - gathering signatures for a petition calling on her to pass the House bill.

Volunteers have also gone to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's district, gathering hundreds more signatures, said Linda Schade, a co-founder of the organization, who believes Diebold's touch screens are riddled with security flaws..

"I don't think the Democrats want to come out of this session not having done something on this issue," she said. "The national Democratic Party has been behind this for several years. ... So for goodness sakes, let's get something done."

Initially, the debate over whether voters will cast ballots this fall with pen and paper or with computers was mechanical, centering on whether Diebold's software was faulty. Computer scientists are divided on the issue, but the machines functioned in Maryland without widespread problems during the 2004 election.

But in February, Ehrlich weighed in, saying he no longer had faith in the State Board of Elections' ability to conduct a tamper-free election because of controversy over Diebold systems in other states. He also demanded pushing back new early voting procedures. Since then, the issue of voting systems has been mired in partisan wrangling.

Democrats have accused Ehrlich of switching his position on paper trails, since last year he vetoed a proposal to study such systems. They say he is trying to cast doubt on the election.

"It's an opportunity to say if it doesn't go their way they can challenge it in court," said Del. Obie Patterson, a Prince George's County Democrat who backs a paper trail bill. "I just believe that's a scare tactic to raise fear. All of this hype could be a good strategy to discourage voters ... " Joseph M. Getty, the governor's policy and legislative director, maintains that early voting and provisional voting with the electronic machines is a recipe for fraud. Getty thinks the machines need further testing to ensure accuracy.

Last week, Republican lawmakers staged a walkout in the Senate, protesting a Democrat-led committee's naming of early-voting poll sites and a move to give the state's elections administrator greater control over local jurisdictions.

The chairman of the State Board of Elections also objected to early voting, submitting testimony last month on a bill that would delay its implementation for two years. He called the Democrat-led move to name the polling sites an attempt to give the party an edge in the election.

"I think it's basically an obscene gesture of gaming the system to benefit one particular party," said Gilles W. Burger. "The whole idea behind polling places and how we conduct our elections is supposed to be fair on all sides."

Burger said local election supervisors are nervous about the changes and hope the legislature offers guidance soon on how the fall elections will be conducted. He also hopes the elections board will be able to implement a statewide system that tracks when and where voters cast

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