New voting system supported

Research group, politicians agree voters need verifiable paper trail

December 02, 2006|By Sumathi Reddy and Melissa Harris | Sumathi Reddy and Melissa Harris,Sun reporters

Legislative leaders say they support overhauling the state's electronic touch-screen machines when the General Assembly convenes next month, an effort that comes in the wake of a draft federal report that condemns paperless voting systems.

Although voting in last month's election in Maryland went off without major glitches, widespread problems in the September primary and in other states trouble those seeking change.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said yesterday that the legislature will work to provide a system with a verifiable paper record of their votes by the next election. Miller, a Democrat, was viewed as the main obstacle to a bill that didn't pass this year.

But with more time before the next election, Miller said he supports exploring a change - whether by switching to optical-scan machines or adding a voter-verified paper printout to the current electronic machines.

"We have two years until the next election," Miller said. "So what I hope to do, in conjunction with the [House] speaker, is put together a group to make recommendations to the General Assembly to come up with some verifiable trail that will serve us."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch echoed Miller's sentiments. He said he expects voters to clamor for a verifiable paper trail or some other means to do manual recounts, and he expects action before the next presidential election in 2008.

"The general public wants some substantive, verifiable trail," Busch said. "They want to be able to track the votes."

Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley, said a transition team work group will explore election issues, including the state's voting machines. It will be headed by former Secretary of State John T. Willis.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology, a nonpartisan research center, issued a draft report this week that concluded that paperless voting machines are not secure, and it endorsed optical-scan machines, which use paper ballots that are counted by running them through a scanner. The report said systems that use software to provide a paper record of votes that were cast are unreliable.

The report's recommendations will be considered by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which is charged with drafting guidelines for the nation's voting systems. Michael Newman, a spokesman for NIST, said the election commission guidelines wouldn't go into effect until 2008 or 2009, at the earliest. Eventually the federal commission's new standards would determine whether Maryland's voting equipment is acceptable.

Shazia Anwar, executive director of TrueVoteMD, which opposes electronic voting, called the NIST recommendations a "step forward" and an "opportunity for a very credible organization to talk about security flaws." She said the state might have to scrap its Diebold Election Systems equipment and purchase optical-scan machines, "particularly if you look at the costs of adding printers" to the electronic machines.

Just adding a paper trail to the state's voting equipment would not enable Maryland voters to walk out of their precinct with a receipt like they do at an ATM. In some places with electronic machines, a paper receipt of their vote is printed and appears behind a piece of glass next to the touch-screen for the voter to review.

Gilles W. Burger, chairman of the State Board of Elections, said that though Maryland's voting equipment can and should be improved - by adding a paper trail, for instance - he doesn't "want to jettison the system" at this point, given the cost and stress of starting from scratch.

"We want to do the most common-sense changes, improvements that make our system more reliable," he said.

Johns Hopkins University computer scientist Aviel Rubin said he was "thrilled" with the NIST recommendations. "You need the ability to count ballots in a way that's independent of software," he said. "Software is always vulnerable to bugs and to undetectable rigging."

But Rubin said he doesn't expect the federal election commission to adopt the recommendations. "The EAC has been very neutral on paper, and I don't see that changing," he said.

Still, he said the fact that a group with such credibility issued such a sweeping statement should have a positive impact on local jurisdictions exploring moving to optical-scan machines.

"I think this will carry a lot of weight with a lot of people," said Rubin. "The pressure in a lot of jurisdictions will be to adopt paper because of this report."

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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