E-poll results undecided

Few glitches in mock election, but Lamone still not sure about system

Maryland Votes 2006

October 04, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

After a daylong test of the state's retrofitted voter check-in computers, it remained unclear yesterday whether the $18 million system works well enough for the state's elections chief to deploy it in the November general election.

The machines experienced 10 problems yesterday, including someone accidentally kicking out a power cord, as more than 7,000 votes were cast during a mock election at the BWI Airport Marriott. Three of the glitches were identical and isolated to one of the 13 machines.

One reason for the relatively smooth test was the addition of a computer mouse to each of the touch-screen terminals, bypassing a software flaw first identified during the Sept. 12 primary and which remained unsolved throughout the day yesterday.

But after the test ended at 8 p.m., Ohio-based Diebold Election Systems Inc., the maker of the computers known as e-poll books, announced it had found another solution to address the software problem that had caused the units to sporadically stop communicating with each other during the primary.

State elections chief Linda H. Lamone said she would make a decision today about whether the e-poll books would be used.

"I want to wait and rather not say today what we're going to do," Lamone said yesterday.

The e-poll books are supposed to be operated by tapping a small plastic stylus against the computer screens. The terminals are linked together and are used to register, among other things, whether a voter has shown up at the polls.

But during last month's primary election, on occasion, one machine in a precinct would show voters as having cast ballots, while another would say they had not come to the polls.

To fix the problem, Diebold officials said yesterday the units could be operated with computer mouses and that they could provide the state with 5,500 of them in time for the general election. Or they could install new software and allow election judges to touch the screens.

During yesterday's test inside the Marriott's banquet hall, the mouses were in use. But one poll worker did not heed the warning to operate the equipment using only the mouse, causing the machine to lose contact with the five others it was linked to. It took less than 30 seconds to reboot the machine.

Lamone's deputy, Ross Goldstein, said yesterday that elections officials would hear from their quality-assurance consultants and Diebold about whether the underlying software flaw causing the machines to lose sync could be fixed before a mid-October deadline to return the improved units to local election boards.

Functioning e-poll books are a crucial step in ensuring that the state does not encounter the same problems Nov. 7 as it did during the Sept. 12 primary election.

A host of problems - from missing equipment to volunteers poorly trained on how to close the polls - delayed the outcome of some races. Tens of thousands of voters ended up using paper ballots instead of the electronic equipment, which will cost the state a total of $106 million over several years.

Had the judges operated the e-poll books as designed yesterday - either by pressing the screen with their fingers or using a stylus - instead of using a mouse, the machines would have had intermittent problems communicating with each other.

Such a flaw, critics of the machines have argued, creates an opportunity for someone to vote twice.

The poll books contain a database of personal information on more than 3 million Maryland voters, including their names, addresses and political parties.

The small, rectangular flat-screen machines replace the alphabetized binders that poll workers once used to check-in voters.

When the e-poll books fail to communicate with each other, or "lose sync," the lists of who has voted in that precinct, which are stored on the e-poll books, don't match. Should someone try to vote again, an out-of-sync system wouldn't flag the double vote until the system had been corrected.

A spokesman for Diebold said yesterday that likelihood of such fraud would be low. If the system requires mouses, poll workers would be instructed repeatedly not to touch the screens and to check whether the system is communicating properly.

They also said that yesterday's test proved that the system works smoothly and that the mouses would not interrupt an election.

Unlike during the primary election, the poll books did not repeatedly crash, and voting cards inserted into them worked - thanks to a piece of Mylar inserted into a card-reading slot.

County elections directors, many of whom came to the event, heaped praise on the machines, saying that they eliminated days of work updating voter histories after the election.

"Your instinct is to touch the screens," said Sandra M. Logan, elections director in Caroline County, as she checked in a voter. "But I think my judges are used to using mouses and would like them."

In addition to local officials, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat; Attorney General Joseph M. Curran Jr.; Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s policy director; and a team of attorneys for his campaign and the state Republican Party stopped by.

A chaotic general election could give ammunition to Republicans who want to scrap the state's electronic voting equipment and accuse Democrats of orchestrating election law changes that favor them and invite fraud.

In response, Ehrlich has called on voters to cast absentee ballots to avoid the machines.

Curran said yesterday he hopes voters who can make it to the polls do so.

"The system seems to be working as it was intended," he said. "People seem to be operating them quite easily."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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