Election Day will be test for state's vote system

Primary problems increase worry about Diebold machines

Maryland Votes 2006

October 30, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN REPORTER

Experts on voting say Maryland is one of the states most at risk for Election Day failures as it tries to recover from a glitch-filled primary amid one of the fiercest political seasons in decades.

Maryland's problems - like those facing several other states and many counties nationwide - stem from a reliance on among the most sophisticated election systems in the country, manufactured by Diebold Election Systems Inc., one of two leading companies in the industry.

Over the past five years, Diebold has become a top voting-system provider, producing touch-screen equipment that records votes electronically. More than 11 percent of the counties in the United States - about 360 - use the same model of voting machine as Maryland, according to a report from Election Data Services of Washington.

The future of that equipment, however, is uncertain.

Activists and computer scientists are critical of much of the technology - especially in Maryland, where there is no independent record that allows for a recount. Computer scientists have demonstrated how hackers with unfettered access to the machines could install vote-switching software. Relying on that evidence, activists have filed multiple lawsuits to improve security.

In response, 22 states have purchased equipment that allows electronic voting machines to produce verifiable paper receipts, according to electionline.org, a nonpartisan research group funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

But not Maryland.

As Election Day approaches, the Diebold machines face a critical test here and elsewhere. If they pass and the election runs smoothly, public confidence in the voting system could be restored. But failures will increase calls for an alternative, such as optical scanning equipment, and could mean that millions of dollars' worth of newly purchased equipment is tossed aside.

Since the federal government ordered states to replace the punch-card and lever voting systems that caused unprecedented havoc in Florida in 2000, nearly two-thirds of the nation's registered voters use different equipment, and a third of all voters will use new machines for the first time this year, according to the report from Election Data Services, which helps state and local governments make these changes.

"The analogy I like to use is retrofitting an old car - right now the country is putting 2006 parts on a 1950 Chevy," said Gracia M. Hillman, a member of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the agency created by Congress to help execute the Help America Vote Act of 2002. "You have to have a very detailed manual, step by step, to work these machines. And the last time I put together something with a manual, I had a glass of wine and wasn't in a hurry. I didn't have several hundred people waiting in line."

Tova Wang, who studies elections for the nonpartisan Century Foundation, said that states have learned from Florida to avoid punch-cards and hanging chads, but also have moved away from electronic voting machines that don't allow recounts - such as Maryland's.

"What you're seeing nationwide is that the states that started buying machines later are buying optical-scan equipment," she said. "The ones that jumped out early and bought the touch-screen machines are trying to affix them with paper trails."

Legislation requiring paper receipts to be added to Maryland's machines have failed in the General Assembly during the past two sessions, and some lawmakers say the idea will return next year.

Wang emphasized that no system is perfect and that finding solutions for existing systems, rather than starting from scratch, is smart because the state's touch-screen systems do have significant advantages for people with disabilities and who speak limited English.

The story of how electronic voting came to Maryland also begins with Florida. After the 2000 election, then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening formed a task force to study Maryland's election system.

In 2001, before Congress passed the Help America Vote Act and authorized $3.8 billion to help states pay for improvements - Maryland decided to upgrade its election equipment and switch to computers.

Diebold was not in the voting-machine business until the fall of that year, when it purchased Texas-based Global Election Systems. Three months later, in December 2001, the Maryland Board of Public Works awarded Diebold a contract worth an estimated $17 million.

But Global's experience with electronic voting - on which Diebold was relying - was also thin. In an Oct. 18, 2001, letter to state procurement officer William M. Bowser, Global acknowledged that its touch-screen equipment had been used in an entire county just once on Election Day.

The company had just one fellow bidder. The state ranked all of Diebold's equipment technically inferior to that of Hart InterCivic, but Diebold won the contract anyway because its bid was $5.6 million lower.

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