Voting machinery

October 06, 2006

Maryland's chief elections administrator says she's confident that a computerized voter check-in system that caused problems for some primary voters last month will work properly in the Nov. 7 general election. That's good news. Two days of independently supervised tests - and fixes by Diebold Election Systems Inc. - have proved a success. Now it's up to the state and local officials to make sure election judges are adequately trained for the task.

The fuss over the $18 million electronic poll books has always been somewhat disproportionate to the severity of the problem. At their worst, the e-poll books would periodically reboot, freezing the screen. Sometimes, they fell out of sync with each other. This caused significant delays in the check-in process in some locations.

These delays may have discouraged some people from voting in the primary, and that was the most troubling aspect of the situation. Turnout in Maryland elections is poor enough as it is. But the security and accuracy of voting was never an issue with the e-poll books. Even the myriad failings of election judges (including those who didn't show up for work or weren't given the necessary computer cards to operate voting machines) were not an issue in that respect.

State elections administrator Linda H. Lamone had the option of returning to the old way of checking in voters - manually referencing them against computer print-outs and index cards. But working e-poll books are clearly the better option. They are faster and more accurate. The resulting shorter waits might even encourage a higher voter turnout next month.

Even so, each polling place will be equipped with the printed material as a backup. Ms. Lamone's plan also calls for more extensive preparation of IT staff in each county. And every person who serves as an election judge is expected to be trained hands-on with poll books between now and Election Day.

The major remaining challenge lies with the recruitment of election judges. In some jurisdictions, the quantity and quality of judges have posed a serious problem. City officials recently agreed to raise judges' salaries, and that may prove helpful. But in much of the state, more applicants are needed. (Those interested should call their local election office; contact information is available at the state Election Board Web site, www.elections.state.md.us).

As we've stated before, the future of Maryland's touch-screen voting system deserves to be examined in detail. After the election season is over, lawmakers will need to objectively investigate what went wrong - and right - with the process, with state and local administration, and with Diebold.

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