Vote check-in glitch declared to be fixed

State is skeptical of e-poll books

other problems linger

Maryland Votes 2006 -- 42 Days Until Nov. 7

September 26, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

Diebold Election Systems Inc. said yesterday that it has solved a design flaw that caused the state's electronic check-in computers to crash repeatedly during this month's primary, overwhelming poll workers and leading to long waits at precincts.

But after watching a demonstration of a corrected e-poll book, state elections administrator Linda H. Lamone said she would not be convinced that the equipment was ready to use in the Nov. 7 general election until it passed a daylong test scheduled for next Tuesday.

The company still has "a big task" ahead, she said.

Fixes to the e-poll books are one of several steps officials are taking to try to avoid a repeat of the errors that disrupted this month's primary election.

Human and electronic problems caused polling places to open late and forced many voters to use paper provisional ballots instead of casting votes on touch-screen machines. The outcome of some races remained unknown for more than a week.

In Baltimore, poll judges arrived late, and some never showed at all. To help enlist more workers, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has asked the state's 70,000-plus work force in a letter to "consider volunteering as election judges" during the state Election Day holiday.

If they do, the governor has offered employees eight hours of administrative leave in addition to the holiday pay -the equivalent of another day off. If 2,000 workers take the offer, the cost of their salaries and benefits for a day would be about $588,000, state budget figures show.

Ehrlich and previous governors have used their authority to grant time off in the past, such as when the Christmas holiday falls on a Thursday and the chief executive grants Friday as a paid vacation day.

With close races for governor and U.S. Senate developing this year, political charges and counter-charges have surrounded the voting problems.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, the Democratic nominee for governor, asked Ehrlich yesterday to join him in signing a draft letter calling on city Republicans to serve as election judges.

State law requires polling places to be staffed with an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, a mandate that is difficult to achieve in Baltimore, where the GOP is outnumbered 9-to-1.

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said the governor would not sign the letter.

"The governor has already called on more than 70,000 state employees to volunteer and instructed the State Board of Elections to identify judges in Baltimore," Fawell said. "We've also been told that Baltimore needs 700 new judges, 400 Republican and 300 Democrat.

"We need to be casting a wide net, not just calling on Republicans, and the governor has already done that."

Ehrlich has raised serious doubts about the reliability of Maryland's electronic voting system.

The governor endorsed the purchase of Diebold touch-screen machines in 2003. But since then, he said, Democratic-backed election proposals such as early voting have undermined the integrity of the system.

The state's $18 million electronic check-in books were purchased to facilitate early voting, which the state's highest court recently ruled was unconstitutional. The units replace traditional paper logs containing voter information, and in theory allow all elections officials to know when a voter signs in. State officials have already said that paper back-ups to e-poll books will be available in all precincts in November.

Yesterday, the governor repeated his suggestion that voters should use absentee ballots if they are uncomfortable with Diebold touch-screen technology.

"When in doubt, when there's a question, there's another option out there that's reliable," he said, referring to absentee balloting. "It may be low-tech, but it's reliable, and people need to take advantage of it."

Local election workers have said that widespread use of absentee ballots could paralyze local election operations and delay results.

Ehrlich also acknowledged that the problems with the e-poll books that arose during the primary have nothing to do with the voting machines themselves or with their accuracy. A repeat of the e-poll book problems would cause long lines and inconvenience for voters, not an unreliable result, he said.

Despite its announcement, Diebold has yet to solve two less-widespread problems that disrupted the machines. And it must also install all of the fixes on 5,500 e-poll books.

At the state elections office yesterday, Diebold summoned reporters and re-created the e-poll book failure, which occurred after 40 to 50 voters had been logged into the machine. A box on the lower left-hand corner of the screen turned red, a "serious error" message popped up on the center of the screen and the machine abruptly turned off.

The employees then ran more than 100 voters through an upgraded unit without incident.

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