Voting-bill opposition irks senator

Elections Board officials speak against his measure for paper record of ballots

General Assembly

February 11, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

Howard County election officials drew the ire of a powerful local state senator over their opposition to a statewide bill that would require a voter-inspected paper record of ballots in time for next year's March presidential primary.

With Senate Majority Leader Edward J. Kasemeyer as the prime sponsor and all but 10 of 47 state senators listed as co-sponsors - including Howard's two other senators - county elections administrator Betty L. Nordaas' caution that switching voting systems would cost the county more than $1 million provoked a reaction.

Many officials believe that election results could be vulnerable to electronic tampering without a paper record, but Nordaas maintained that "85 to 90 percent of voters are quite happy [with electronic voting] and feel it's secure."

The exchange came at an annual public hearing sponsored by Howard legislators Thursday night in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City. A hearing on the Senate bill is scheduled this month. A companion bill is under consideration in the House of Delegates.

Nordaas told the 11 county General Assembly members at the hearing that she is worried about the cost if the bills pass, forcing a switch from the new electronic touch-screen voting machines to older optical-scan technology using different machines.

Howard County's share of the statewide cost could range up to $792,000, she said, and added that printing, postage, supplies and staff training would push the expense over $1 million. In addition, she said, the county is still obligated to pay $300,000 for the touch-screen machines.

"Take a step back and plan, and not rush into anything we'd have to change in 2010," she urged.

Under questioning by Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a strong advocate of paper ballots, Nordaas said the bills "are taking us in the right direction," but perhaps too soon.

Kasemeyer was visibly irritated at her testimony, which was later supported by her deputy, Guy C. Mickley. The agitated senator asked Nordaas whose idea it was for her to testify, and she said she had become worried about the expense of changing systems and brought it up.

"You took the initiative to take this to the [county elections] board?" Kasemeyer asked.

"Diebold costs much more money," he said, referring to the electronic touch-screen voting systems.

The electronic machines cost twice the price of the older optical-scan machines, added Del. Frank S. Turner.

Later, Kasemeyer said, "I was ticked" at Nordaas' testimony. He said he thought that those views should have come from the Board of Elections members, "not from paid staff."

Mickley, who is also president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials, raised other objections to changing the election machines.

He testified that audits of votes required by Kasemeyer's bill would interfere with the board's canvass of absentee ballots.

In addition, election poll judges have been taught two or three different voting systems in five years.

"Every time a component is added or taken away, every time a process is changed, and every time a different mandate is carried out, we lose judges," Mickley said.

With a presidential primary coming in 13 months, he said, there isn't enough time to educate voters about a new system.

"Confusion and lack of knowledge leads to waning confidence in the process," Mickley said. "I implore you to reconsider taking this legislation any further this year."

Ray Rankin, vice chairman of the Howard County Democratic Central Committee, testified in favor of having a voting paper trail, as did Grace Kubofcik, who is co-president of the county League of Women Voters. But she said she was speaking for herself.

Elections Board Chairman Guy Harriman testified in opposition to a local bill Turner introduced that would increase the size of the county Elections Board to five members from three. Rankin said he supported the bill.

By law, two of the three board members must be from the same political party as Maryland's governor. Each party is allowed to have one alternate member, who may vote only when a board member from the alternate's party is absent.

Currently, the Republican alternate position is vacant, and one of the two full-time GOP board members appointed under former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has not been attending board meetings. That leaves one person from each party to conduct business, and if they disagree, it would produce a tie, Rankin said.

But Harriman said the problem could be solved another, better way - by speeding up the cumbersome process for filling board vacancies.

Kubofcik, this time representing the league, also opposed the bill, saying that "we have not seen any evidence that the board could not operate" with its current structure.

In other matters, the delegation unanimously approved bills asking for $250,000 in state bond money to help the private Norbel School renovate the old Elkridge Elementary School, where it is located, and to allow beer tasting as well as wine tasting at retail alcohol beverage stores under a special liquor license.

Two bills were withdrawn.

One sought to enhance workers' compensation benefits for deputy sheriffs, and another would have created a new class of liquor license for organic beer and wine. The latter was dropped after opposition from local liquor retailers.

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