E-poll books to get 2nd try

But governor is not reassured that glitch is fixed

Maryland Votes 2006

October 06, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

State elections officials announced yesterday that Maryland's $18 million electronic voter check-in system will be used during the November general election, saying that the manufacturer has successfully addressed the flaws that snarled last month's primary.

Deputy elections Administrator Ross Goldstein said that officials witnessed more than 1,000 mock voters "check in" yesterday on the retrofitted machines, known as e-poll books and that the units did not sporadically stop communicating with each other as they did during primary voting last month.

The manufacturer, Diebold Election Systems Inc., fixed a glitch that occasionally prevented the machines from talking to each other, elections officials said.

Earlier this week, the company had said the problem was best resolved by using only a mouse, which would bypass the system's touch-screen functions but still leave it vulnerable to errors if the screens were accidentally pressed by poll workers.

As of yesterday, officials said they determined that additional repairs eliminated that risk.

"In particular, the solutions offered to maintain synchronicity have now been demonstrated to work with a mouse, with touch pad entry, and with both in combination," said state elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone in a statement.

The problems surfaced only in the check-in machines, not the electronic units - also made by Diebold - which voters use to record their selections. The touch-screen voting machines themselves appeared to operate well, officials said.

The Ehrlich administration said yesterday that it was not satisfied that the check-in machines would function as intended. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has been an outspoken critic of the electronic machines, and his policy and legislative director Joseph M. Getty said Diebold has a history of broken promises.

"We know they work in a controlled setting," Getty said. "But will it work when election judges set it up and when they're in a school somewhere with all of the vagaries of Election Day stress?"

Still, Lamone's announcement comes as a relief to most local election chiefs, who, in general, are wary of making last-minute changes such as abandoning the equipment with a little more than a month before the general election.

Lamone also has ordered every county to retrain chief election judges for the Nov. 7 vote and is also requiring polling places to have printed paper lists of voters in case the check-in machines fail.

A host of problems - from missing equipment to volunteers poorly trained on how to close the polls - delayed the outcome of some races on Sept. 12. Tens of thousands of voters ended up using paper ballots instead of the electronic equipment because of the chaos.

The poll books, which contain a database of every registered voter in the state, however, did significantly reduce local officials paperwork after the election. When told that the state would continue to use the poll books, Barbara Fisher, director of elections in Anne Arundel County, said, "Yes!"

"If they work properly, they're a good thing," she said. "They're really going to be a savings in terms of administrative work for our election judges. And it should speed lines up."

Tom Feehan, Diebold's Maryland project manager, said in a statement yesterday that Diebold was "pleased" with Lamone's decision and "gratified by the support and enthusiasm that elections officials and voters have shown for this system."

Late last month, Feehan said the company only recently found the source of the flaw, which caused the machines to "lose sync" and stop communicating with each other.

Until the faulty e-poll book was rebooted, it would maintain an inaccurate record of who had voted in a particular precinct, creating an opportunity for someone to vote twice.

Potentially, an alert election judge could catch the fraudulent voter before a ballot is cast, but the system wouldn't flag the double vote until after the machine was rebooted.

Maryland initiated a host of election reforms this year to comply with federal requirements under the Help America Vote Act of 2002, but the e-poll books were not a necessary part of that.

Maryland needed the units - and rushed to use a new model that was not federally certified until June or July - to prevent fraud during what was supposed to be five days of early voting.

Democrats in the General Assembly passed an early voting plan in each of the past two years, saying they wanted to give voters more flexibility. More than 30 states have some form of early voting.

Ehrlich aggressively opposed the Assembly's effort and vetoed both bills - arguing that the proposal invited fraud and was nothing more than an election year ploy to drum up Democratic turnout.

The Assembly overrode the vetoes. Allies of the governor sued to have the law overturned, and the state's highest court declared early voting unconstitutional in late August.

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