The voting fix

September 21, 2006

Maryland doesn't need a repeat of last week's primary election snafus, so the corrective plans presented yesterday to the Board of Public Works are a welcome development. Elections officials recognize that the delays, breakdowns, miscommunications and other foul-ups that arose Nov. 12 need immediate attention. With just seven weeks until the Nov. 7 general election, it's going to take a concerted - and cooperative - effort by state and local elections officials to pull it off.

While basic human error deserves much of the blame for the primary's worst problems (computers don't forget to bring needed supplies or fail to open polling places on time), the technology was far from flawless. The State Board of Elections administrator, Linda H. Lamone, says she has been assured that a software glitch that caused computerized voter verification systems (called electronic poll books) to freeze at some polling places will be fixed and publicly tested by contractor Diebold Election Systems Inc., and the results independently verified.

Ms. Lamone has called on local election boards in the most problem-filled jurisdictions - Baltimore City and Prince George's, Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties - to devise plans to replace unfit election judges and to better recruit and train (or perhaps retrain) a new team before the election. That could pose a significant challenge but hardly an unreasonable one. The state has spent $106 million on voting equipment in recent years, so any additional money devoted to better preparing staff would seem a relative bargain.

Who is to blame for last week's debacle? Neither Ms. Lamone nor any other witness to appear before Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his fellow board members could offer any easy answers. That's not to suggest there is a shortage of culprits - if anything, there are too many. The power struggles between a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature over election policy are a good place to start, but blame must be shared by Ms. Lamone, the local election boards and Diebold.

A more complete analysis will likely have to wait until next year, when a legislative audit is completed, but for now the focus should be exactly where Ms. Lamone has recommended: on making sure Maryland's general election runs smoothly. If she and others can deliver on what they have now promised, it should. No Maryland voter should be discouraged from going to the polls - and especially not by something so mundane and correctable as long lines, misplaced computer cards and befuddled election judges.

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