State board OKs funds for early voting

Fearing more delays, Ehrlich says yes to first wave of devices


The state Board of Public Works approved a $2.4 million contract yesterday for new computer equipment that elections officials say is crucial to administering early voting this year, despite continued reservations by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Ehrlich reiterated a host of complaints about early voting - which will allow selected polls to open five days before the primary and general elections - and other election laws passed over his vetoes by the Democratic-led General Assembly. The governor said the measures are "a joke" and "an invitation to fraud."

But faced with state and local election officials who said delaying or rejecting the contract with Diebold Election Systems would jeopardize their ability to administer the balloting this fall, Ehrlich voted reluctantly for it. He said, however, that he would continue to support a petition drive aimed at overturning early voting, as well as court challenges to the new rules.

"We're going to vote favorably on this, obviously, because we have no other option," Ehrlich told state Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone at the board meeting. "You'll do the best you can, I know you will, but you'll get instructions, I suspect, from the courts."

The contract is for the first installment of "e-poll books," which are touch-screen computer devices that effectively replace the paper lists of registered voters elections judges check in each precinct. They are key to the elections board's plans to prevent people from casting multiple ballots during the early voting period.

The board's plan calls for the machines to be networked to one another within each jurisdiction so that if a person votes early at one polling place, he or she will not be able to do so at another.

Elections officials said yesterday's contract will give them enough machines for training of election judges but that they will need to get board approval for additional contracts totaling about $14 million before the fall.

Ehrlich and members of his administration have attacked the devices. Yesterday, the governor questioned how the machines would be connected to one another and whether the state has a backup plan in case they fail.

State Deputy Elections Administrator Ross Goldstein told Ehrlich that the machines operate independently, so that if one of them fails, the others will still work. If the network fails, he said, there would be no way to prevent a voter from casting multiple ballots in one day in his home county during early voting.

"That's a really bad answer," Ehrlich said.

Goldstein replied that the networking has been tested and that it works. After the meeting, he said that anyone who tried such a scheme would run the risk of being caught and prosecuted.

Alex Zeese, a spokesman for TrueVoteMD, an elections process watchdog group that has been critical of Maryland's touch-screen voting machines, also made by Diebold, said it is disturbing that the state is putting all its fath in one company. Furthermore, he said, changes are being implemented so fast that it's impossible to know whether the new process will work.

"We are streamlining the process, and we might be doing it too much where we're removing those valuable checks and balances that have made voting secure," Zeese said.

Several local election board officials attended the meeting yesterday to support the e-poll books contract.

Guy C. Mickley, deputy director of the Howard County Board of Elections and president of the Maryland Association of Elections Administrators, said he has seen the machines work in municipal elections and believes they provide a level of security the state has never had.

Sandi Logan, the elections director from Caroline County, said the new "process has been somewhat forced on us," but that she's confident that the elections can be administered without the possibility of fraud. She said she's never been convinced there was a big possibility of people trying to vote multiple times to begin with.

"We've never had that problem in Caroline County," Logan said. "I'm sure it must happen someplace if they keep talking about it."

Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, who joined Ehrlich in voting for the contract, said continued delays could make the governor's fears of a chaotic election self-fulfilling.

"Continued inaction by this board is what will make the present schedule for elections difficult to enact," she said.

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who earlier in the meeting was given a cake by first lady Kendel Ehrlich to celebrate his return to health after a brief illness, abstained from the vote. Schaefer said he is concerned about all the changes and doesn't see the need to monkey with a system that has worked.

"I just think we should have a good, plain, simple election," he said. "You come in to vote, and that's it."

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