Voting reform seen unlikely until 2010

Miller cites state budget problems

General Assembly

February 02, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said yesterday that he could not support an overhaul of the state's paperless voting system until 2010 in light of anticipated budget shortfalls and a hectic election season in Baltimore.

"There's a consensus that we need to change the voting system and have a more secure voting system," Miller said. "But we're facing a roadblock of economy. We haven't even finished paying for our current system. ... I don't believe it will pass this year without money."

Miller's unwillingness to commit to "paper-trail" legislation this year significantly lowers the chances that voters will cast their ballots on modified or new equipment next year. Meanwhile, another election reform, a proposed constitutional amendment to permit multiple days of early voting, is on a fast track.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Maryland section Feb. 2 incorrectly characterized a proposal from Linda H. Lamone, state elections administrator, for the 2008 election cycle. Lamone recommended that election officials supply paper ballots to every precinct in addition to the state's touch-screen machines. The paper ballots would be counted on Election Day by running them through optical scanners at a central location in each county. This would give Marylanders the option of voting on paper.
The Sun regrets the error.

Miller's statements on voting technology reforms frustrated advocates who have urged the state to scrap the new machines, which they argue could have undetectable software glitches or malicious viruses that kill or switch votes.

Yesterday, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist announced that he would put $33 million in his budget to replace touch-screen equipment with paper ballots that are fed into optical scanners, which tally the votes and enable a meaningful recount.

"I think money is a valid concern, but it's hard to put a price on a secure election," said Johanna Neumann, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Election Integrity Coalition.

Miller's cautious approach was consistent with warnings that the state's elections chief, Linda H. Lamone, gave yesterday to members of the House of Delegates, who have pursued the elimination of the state's ATM-like machines far more aggressively than their Senate counterparts.

Lamone said that it would be impossible for Baltimore City election officials to run the municipal election in November on the state's existing touch-screen equipment and then make changes in time for the March 2008 presidential primary.

"We've already learned the consequences of rushing to implement a new system," Lamone said, referring to the repeated failure of the state's new voter check-in system during its debut last year, leading to confusion and delays at polling places. Making changes in 2008 would "put the presidential election in jeopardy."

Gail Hatfield of the Maryland Association of Election Officials wrote to legislators that mandating changes in 2008 would "cripple the election process" in Baltimore.

A paper-trail bill unanimously passed the House of Delegates last year, but failed in the Senate. The House is considering the same legislation again.

Instead of the current proposal, Lamone recommended that state lawmakers add one optical scanner to every precinct in 2008, which would give voters skeptical of the touch-screen terminals the ability to cast ballots on paper at polling places.

The state would then unveil a new or upgraded system in 2010 that offers a way for voters to verify their choices apart from the voting machine and meets new nationwide standards, which the federal government is expected to release as early as this summer. She didn't recommend a particular verification method.

Lamone said a new system would cost state and local governments at least $35 million, even as they continue to make payments for the existing machines. The state owes Diebold Election Systems Inc., the Texas-based manufacturer of the state's voting equipment, tens of millions of dollars.

Maryland was among the first states to move to an electronic system after the notorious butterfly and punchcard ballot controversy in Florida in 2000, but computer scientists soon concluded that some of the new systems were poorly designed and lacked adequate security.

The current nationwide debate over voting technology offers no easy solutions. No printer exists that can be attached to the state's new machines to give voters the opportunity to check the equipment's accuracy.

When there have been printers affixed to voting machines, several counties, most notably Cuyahoga County, Ohio, have watched them jam and destroy the county's official election record.

A lack of existing and trustworthy technology has spurred an army of advocates to lobby for paper ballots tallied by optical scanners. The ballots are saved in the event of a recount and permit election officials to easily audit the system.

Professor Edward W. Felten, a computer scientist at Princeton University and critic of the state's system, said yesterday that a paper receipt is an important check on ATMs, despite those systems being far more secure than Maryland's voting equipment.

If agreement in the House is reached, Miller said, any bill from the Senate would be contingent on funding and include a 2010 implementation date.

Said Miller: "What the speaker of the House and I have told the election administrator is that a paper-trail is going to occur, it's just a question of how and when."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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