Ehrlich would end electronic voting

Special session weighed, but major overhaul probably not feasible

elections administrator grilled over failure of machines in primaries

Paper printouts, ballots considered

September 21, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wants to scrap the electronic voter check-in system that crashed repeatedly during its debut in last week's primary and is considering whether to summon the General Assembly to Annapolis before the Nov. 7 election to do so.

"We literally cannot afford to see take place the events that took place on primary day," Ehrlich said yesterday during a meeting of the state Board of Public Works, where he grilled Linda H. Lamone, Maryland's embattled elections chief, over voting problems. "We were lucky during the primary that there was low turnout."

A spokesman for the governor said later that Ehrlich would like to replace the check-in machines, known as e-poll books, and also possibly use paper ballots that are counted by optical scanning equipment instead of the state's electronic touch-screen voting machines.

The check-in and the touch-screen machines are manufactured by Diebold Election Systems Inc.

With the general election less than seven weeks away, it is unlikely that a major overhaul of the state's voting mechanism is feasible. Legislators and election officials warned that the system is "stressed" and could not handle more change.

A series of errors - including critical computer cards not being delivered in Montgomery County and no-show poll judges in Baltimore - led to confusion and anger during last week's voting.

Local election officials are still counting thousands of paper provisional ballots used by voters when the check-in machines failed. Some races, including the 4th District congressional contest in suburban Washington, remain undecided.

The source of the problem with the electronic check-in books was disclosed for the first time yesterday during a tense two-hour meeting in Annapolis at which Ehrlich and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer asked pointed questions of Lamone and the elections chief explained the solutions she was asking from Diebold.

The poll book's software, customized for Maryland, included features that overloaded the machines and shut them down after about 40 voters had signed in, Lamone and Diebold officials said.

Asked whether the machines were thoroughly tested after the customizing, Tom Feehan, Diebold's project manager for Maryland, said he did not know.

"I believe they were tested, but they may not have been tested through 40 votes," he said.

Lamone told the Public Works Board, which authorized the purchase of the equipment in June and July, that the malfunction was "intolerable" and that she would "hold Diebold accountable" by requiring the Ohio-based company to provide a written summary of the problem by tomorrow and to fix every machine before the general election.

State officials, including Ehrlich, began discussing yesterday setting aside the electronic check-in computers and returning to paper printouts to log voters at each precinct.

A new state law appears to require the use of the electronic books, which were purchased as a necessary component of an early-voting system that the state's highest court ruled Aug. 25 was unconstitutional.

The governor and Assembly leaders are considering whether the system can be mothballed without a change in the law that would require a special legislative session.

Voters "are not going to feel any more secure if the legislature were to come back into session," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, later adding that politicians needed to give election officials room to make improvements.

The scene inside the governor's reception room was tense. Eight television cameras swung back and forth as Ehrlich asked questions from his seat at the front of the room and Lamone answered them from behind a tall podium about 15 feet away.

The governor started by asking Lamone to respond to his summary of problems that voters and election judges had reported to the toll-free complaint hot line that he established.

Rather than answering him directly, Lamone read from her written summary of the problems, calling the election "difficult" and the system "stressed." She then said that many parts of the system "broke" but that she was not at the meeting "to point any fingers."

That was what Ehrlich and Schaefer asked her to do.

Ehrlich wanted to know whether Diebold had "materially breached" its contract, a question that Lamone said she wasn't qualified to answer.

Schaefer repeatedly asked Lamone, "Who's to blame?" At one point, he turned to members of the governor's staff standing in the corner and asked whether they "did anything to help" Lamone prepare for the state's first entirely electronic election.

With Ehrlich's election in 2002, Republicans took control of state and local election boards for the first time in more than three decades. Despite appointing a majority of the state elections panel, Ehrlich has been thwarted by Democrats in his efforts to oust Lamone.

The governor has disagreed with Lamone, but in 2003 he approved the purchase of Diebold touch-screen voting units, pointing to a study that concluded they could be made secure.

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