Voting machinery

October 30, 2006

It has not been a banner week for public confidence in the election process. Reports of past hardware problems in the touch-screen voting machines, the leak of confidential, if outdated, software, and concern over a possible shortage of absentee ballots in certain jurisdictions have caused nearly as much attention to be paid to the mechanics of Election Day as to the candidates whose names will appear on the ballots.

But let's set the record straight: Don't buy the hype. Many of these concerns are overstated, and mixed in with the bad news are signs that Nov. 7 could turn out to be a fairly routine Election Day after all. The biggest threat to the election is not that votes will be miscounted but that too many voters will be discouraged from going to the polls.

First, there's the matter of absentees. The call from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and some others for voters to use absentee ballots instead of voting in person probably wasn't helpful in this regard. So far, only Montgomery and Prince George's counties have encountered significant shortages. Even so, all qualified voters who request an absentee ballot are expected to be mailed one.

Is it possible some people who are headed out of town soon may not get theirs before they leave? Yes, but that's likely to be a very modest number. In all, the state expects to have more than 1 million absentee ballots at the disposal of local elections offices to fulfill a projected 200,000 requests. That's not a crisis, just a spot shortage driven by this year's peculiar political climate.

As for leaked software and a hardware problem that's been fixed, those are matters worth reviewing after the election but mean little right now. Remember, voting machines weren't a problem during September's primary. They worked fine. The problem was with the electronic voter check-in system, and contractor Diebold Election Systems - as well as an independent consultant - say they have addressed it.

The other lingering concern is whether local elections offices have hired enough judges and whether those judges are capable and adequately trained. Here, too, the signs are good. And a recent state attorney general's opinion that will allow polling places to open even when some judges don't show up for duty should help Baltimore and other places where this was a problem in September. Now it's up to voters to ignore the alarmists and cast their ballots one week from tomorrow.

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