Sun should keep covering issue of voting glitches

Public Editor

October 15, 2006|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,Public Editor

With less than four weeks to go before the general election, the debate over electronic voting and other problems in Maryland's 2006 electoral process has become as important as the political races themselves - and The Sun should continue to cover all aspects of this continuing story.

As Maryland officials try to fix the technical and human problems that created havoc during the September primary election, the integrity of the election system hangs in the balance.

Since the primary, a number of articles have documented how the new voter check-in process kept some voters waiting for hours. Other articles noted the painfully slow tabulation of ballots and the system's apparent lack of safeguards against fraud.

Recently, stories by The Sun's Melissa Harris documented how the persistent shortage of election judges in parts of Baltimore City and several counties could again create the long lines and frustration of September. And because some candidates are recommending the use of absentee ballots, it is possible that the final result of close races could be delayed until days after the Nov. 7 election.

Driven by the ballot counting debacle in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, Congress eventually passed legislation mandating that all states purchase federally certified electronic voting systems. Diebold Electronic System, the electronic voter equipment manufacturer, did not get final federal approval for the more sophisticated system Maryland ordered until two months before the state's primary, which delayed its delivery and testing.

As Harris reported later, the delays put state election officials under extreme deadline pressure to make a brand new system work. And it showed in September.

An Oct. 6 Sun article did give readers some encouraging news. After a series of tests by state election officials to determine if the glitches had been fixed, the e-poll system was cleared for use in November.

Reader Bob Ellis, who is a veteran "check-in" election judge in Howard County, offered his perspective: "My colleagues and I like the e-poll books. Although we had some malfunctions in September, the books are easy to use and enabled us to process voters faster. I'm hopeful your article that Diebold has made corrections means the problems we encountered have been eliminated."

An Oct. 8 article by Harris described the continuing difficulties of recruiting qualified Democratic and Republican election judges for each polling place as required by state law.

Reader Ronald Leischer said: "I have appreciated your work on the electronic voting coverage and I think it is important that you continue to report on the lack of election judges. Those in charge must do everything possible to make sure this upcoming election is not dogged by questions of irregularities."

Harris and technology columnist Mike Himowitz also have written about voting machine security - namely a worst-case scenario where hackers infiltrate a voting machine's computer system and alter the vote results. Diebold has maintained that improved safeguards are in place to prevent this but concerns persist. "It is the elephant in the room for election officials," said one reader.

Because she has been reporting this story for months, Harris has a number of reference points to help readers grasp whether the state's efforts to restore public confidence in the voting system are working.

"Prior to the September primary election I attended three hours of training in Baltimore and became a certified poll worker," she said. "The training, however, was abysmal. Because Diebold employees and city election staff split the instruction there was little continuity. Someone stood at the front of the room holding a gadget in her hand like Vanna White as people yawned, fidgeted and got up to go the bathroom. Four voting units were hooked up in the back of the room but no one took the time to look at them."

The University of Baltimore will now conduct a new round of training in the city, and Harris plans to attend another class to report on whether the process has improved.

Concerted efforts to persuade voters to use absentee ballots on Nov. 7 will be another important aspect of The Sun's coverage. Harris and others plan to monitor the absentee ballot requests during the rest of October to gauge how much impact they may have on individual races. Another issue is whether state election officials can handle a late surge of mailed-in ballots.

A less noticed part of the story is the end of old-fashioned mechanical voting machines - which to many people represented the seriousness and sanctity of exercising one's right to vote.

Said reader Jennifer Smith: "Is anybody talking about the fact that the voting booths are no longer private? In September I felt like I was voting in a crowd and I didn't particularly like it."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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