Elections: Here Maryland goes again

Consensus grows that state may have to update or replace technology for 2008 vote

December 24, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN Staff

Having survived one election season made tumultuous by problems with new electronic voting systems, Maryland voters appear likely to face fresh voting challenges during the 2008 presidential election cycle.

It's too early to tell just what type of equipment Marylanders will cast votes on in 2008, but a national consensus is growing that electronic voting machines like those used in Maryland will need to be upgraded or replaced before the next national election.

Any change in Maryland will come at a considerable cost and its own set of challenges, as well as the admission that the state erred in purchasing inadequate technology after Florida's troubles in 2000 spawned a nationwide shift toward computerized voting.

On Sept. 12, a new electronic voter check-in system repeatedly crashed; a rare miscue in Montgomery County left machines unusable for the greater part of the morning; and election judges who were absent or poorly trained on the new electronic machines - particularly in Baltimore - frustrated voters.

Both Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and a spokesman for Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley say the cost of electoral reform will weigh heavily on the General Assembly during the coming 90-day session.

Miller said in an interview with The Sun last week that the legislature was considering the possibility of adding a paper trail to the state's touch-screen machines, which computer scientists and others have argued would reduce the chances of someone hacking into and tampering with election results.

"The reason we didn't move forward immediately last year was the cost factor," Miller said.

The lack of a paper or other independent record to be used as a check on possible problems with electronic voting machines has become a significant national issue.

A group of scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology recently concluded that electronic voting without a paper trail or some check apart from the machine's own software to confirm vote totals is unacceptable.

And a subcommittee of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission recently endorsed the need for paper trails or other independent verification - although it also recommended grandfathering in Maryland's existing system.

O'Malley has formed a team to study what do about problems with the Maryland's electronic voting system, but three options are already being discussed.

The state could jettison its current ATM-style equipment and return to paper ballots. Voters would fill in ovals or complete a broken arrow to mark their choices. The ballots would be counted by running them through a computer, called an optical scanner, and then saved in the event of a recount.

Or the state could add a paper trail to its existing equipment. A credit card-style receipt listing a voter's choices would scroll up behind a glass window next to the touch-screen. The voter could review the receipt, which would be saved and make a recount possible independent of the results generated by the machines' software.

Finally, the state could trade in its machines for newer models that come equipped with a printer - hopefully at a steep discount.

Retrofitting the state's existing equipment would seem to be an intuitive option, except for one key obstacle: No such printer is on the market.

The state's voting equipment manufacturer, Diebold Election Systems Inc., unveiled a prototype of a retrofitted printer two years ago, but production has not moved forward since then, said company spokesman Mark Radke.

Should the General Assembly require an independent paper record of all votes and election officials choose to retrofit the equipment with printers, Radke said, the company would manufacture them.

Doing so, however, would again put the state in the position of using equipment that had never been used elsewhere or tested in a real-life setting during a high-pressure 2008 presidential election year.

Maryland did that this year with a new model of voter check-in machine, which crashed in the primary after every 43rd voter arrived. Diebold had not adequately tested a portion of the software that was customized for use in Maryland.

"Slapping a printer on there does not seem wise - our risk would be greater," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat, who is pushing for statewide use of optical scanners.

Absentee ballots are already cast that way.

"One criticism you hear from activists who want paper trails is that they think vendors have done some half-hearted efforts at making these printers," said Sean Greene, research director at electionline.org. "They don't seem very excited about them."

Absent a product, Miller suggested that the state could swap its existing Diebold model for a newer one, comparing the trade with one Maryland made to arm its state troopers with an updated Beretta handgun.

"Diebold doesn't want a bad reputation," Miller said.

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