Georgia's computerized voting works well

State uses system nearly identical to Maryland's

July 20, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

Lynn Ledford, the elections supervisor in the northeast Atlanta suburb of Gwinnett County, was pleased that only five of her nearly 200 polling stations experienced brief delays during Tuesday's primary voting, blaming the glitches on older volunteers who get skittish when faced with "anything that looks like a computer."

What should make elections supervisors and voters in Maryland breathe easier, however, is that Georgia -- whose computerized system is almost identical to the one to be used in Maryland this year -- ran what appears to be a successful election with only minor delays.

Most of the problems, Georgia officials said, were caused by people not showing up on time to open polling places.

Maryland, like Georgia, re-engineered its election systems after the 2000 Florida recount. Here, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and other critics have raised grave doubts about the security of this year's election, saying the combination of Diebold touch-screen machines and early voting could invite disaster.

That didn't happen in Georgia this year, however.

Asked whether Georgia's success eased his concerns about vote-counting this fall, Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip from Southern Maryland, quickly responded, "No," arguing that although the technology may be similar, the process is not.

In Georgia, early voters must cast ballots in the county in which they are registered. That's not the case in Maryland, which O'Donnell said is an invitation to fraud.

O'Donnell also warned that Maryland is rushing.

Although Georgia has championed several "firsts" in voting reforms, each step was staggered -- 2002 brought uniform computerized voting; 2004, early voting; and 2006, "electronic poll books," an electronic list of registered voters used to check in people.

Maryland, however, will launch or complete the phase-in of all three initiatives this year.

"We haven't adequately tested this technology," O'Donnell said. "I want to do some of these things, but I oppose the way they've been implemented. We need to take more time to do it right and ensure that safeguards are in place."

"Making voting easy is equally as important as making voting safe from cheating," O'Donnell said.

On Tuesday, fewer than a dozen Georgia precincts lost time because of problems -- time that was added on at the end of the day with court approval.

"We roll out these changes in lower turnout elections so we don't have super long lines and a lot of delays," said Kara Sinkule, a spokeswoman for Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox.

The Maryland General Assembly passed early voting bills in each of the past two years, but they were vetoed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is supporting a petition drive to overturn the legislation. The Assembly overrode the governor's vetoes.

Unlike Maryland, however, Georgia has faced little controversy over early voting, held there from Monday through Friday before the election. Ledford said some Georgia elections supervisors groaned because early voting meant more work, but voters loved it.

"In 2004, the only problem we had with early voting was long lines," said Sharon Dunn, the elections supervisor in Cobb County, northwest of Atlanta, which opened just one early voting site that year. The actual voting machines performed well on Tuesday, state and county officials said. Vote counts, however, were delayed in Clayton and Gwinnett counties -- some machines couldn't be locked for transport; other precincts had problems trying to remotely send the results via modem, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The problems, however, were resolved.

Electronic poll books, which were new in Georgia this year and are also being purchased in Maryland, created more frequent glitches. At precincts with several of them, some volunteers turned them on all at once; the activation needs to be staggered.

Fulton County, Georgia's largest, trained poll workers for 3 1/2 hours on the use of electronic poll books, and then opened up labs for workers to voluntarily spend extra time on the machines.

"We did our training, did our training and did our training," said Linda Latimore, elections director for DeKalb County, which neighbors Atlanta to the west. "The machines are fine and haven't caused us any problems. But we told all of our workers to be careful when they take those poll books out of the package, and do not shake them all around. We had a few who didn't listen, and we had to show them how to plug the orange cord back in. It's bright orange for a reason."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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