House bill to require paper trail for voters

Lawmakers wrestle with poll records

January 13, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

The latest attempt to upgrade or replace the state's paperless voting equipment was launched yesterday in the House of Delegates.

Legislation proposed by Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairwoman of the ways and means committee, would enable voters to review a paper record of their choices before their ballots become official.

The goal of the legislation is to avoid the drama still unfolding in Sarasota County, Fla. -- where voting machines might not have registered the choices of 18,000 voters in a hotly contested congressional race in November.

There, as in Maryland, election records are maintained in electronic touch-screen machines that operate much like an ATM, but don't produce a receipt, or what officials call a paper trail.

Without one, for instance, it is difficult to determine whether the computer mistakenly lost those 18,000 Sarasota County votes or whether a poor ballot design led voters to skip over the race unintentionally.

Last year, similar paper-trail legislation passed the House of Delegates unanimously, only to die in the Senate. In its final form, the House bill would have required the state to revert to paper ballots counted by an optical scanner for last year's election.

This year's bill is less specific, leaving open the possibility of upgrading the state's existing machines by affixing a printer. Typically, voters' choices would unroll on paper behind a glass window next to the machine's screen.

However, Howard County Del. Elizabeth Bobo said that a specific requirement in Hixson's legislation -- requiring that each voter's paper record be separate and not collected on a continuous roll -- would make complete replacement of the state's system a virtual certainty.

Because Hixson leads the committee that will oversee the legislation, the bill's chances are enhanced. Prospects in the Senate are less certain.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat who leads the Senate committee that would take up the matter, said Thursday that similar legislation has been drafted in that chamber, but that it may be on hold, pending recommendations from a working group formed by Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley to study the issue.

One primary concern among Senate leaders will be cost. So far, Hixson's proposal does not have a cost estimate, but it is expected to be high. Maryland's existing system cost more than $100 million.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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