In Carroll, some votes look better on paper

Most municipalities prefer old ballots for local elections

May 08, 2007|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun Reporter

Pencil in hand, Dottie McGeehan checked one box for mayor and two of the four boxes listing City Council candidates in the Taneytown election yesterday.

Then she emerged from the curtained stall at City Hall - the only polling place open for this election - folded her paper ballot and slipped it into a simple wooden box secured with a padlock.

As controversy swirls around the state over computerized voting machines, early voting and other changes in election operations, most of Carroll County's eight municipalities have stuck with the tried-and-true paper ballots as they conduct their city and town elections this month. The computerized machines are kept in reserve for countywide, state and federal elections.

Dottie McGeehan and her husband, Bill, who live in the new Carroll Vista retirement community, said yesterday they prefer voting the traditional way.

"I think you get less mistakes with paper, but then I'm from the old school," said Dottie McGeehan, 73, a photographer who hasn't figured out how to use her digital camera. "I'm not computer literate."

With low turnouts common for municipal elections, the voting machines aren't worth the expense for most Carroll County towns.

A paper-ballot election costs Taneytown less than $500, City Clerk Linda Hess said yesterday. Renting the county's electronic voting machines, made by Diebold Election Systems Inc., would cost more than twice that, she said.

Carroll's two smallest towns, New Windsor and Union Bridge, will both use paper ballots in their municipal elections today.

But Hampstead has traded its ancient ballot box for electronic voting machines that the town started leasing two years ago from the county Board of Elections.

The time-saving machines cost the town, which has a population of 6,000, about $1,200, Town Manager Ken Decker said.

Rather than tallying ballots until the wee hours, the results of today's election in Hampstead should be available less than half-an-hour after the polls close at 8 p.m.

"The technology is getting so accessible now, and the accuracy with the electronic version is so much better," Decker said. "With paper, people get confused: `How many do I vote for?' "

Nationwide, more Americans cast ballots using optical-scan machines than any other method, according to Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, a Washington group that tracks voting trends.

About one-third of the counties in the U.S. use electronic voting, and most municipalities within those counties utilize those machines, Brace said.

"But some of the local jurisdictions are starting to squawk at the high costs that are being passed on to them," Brace said of municipal electronic voting.

Towns and counties that use paper ballots tend to have smaller, more rural populations, Brace said.

All three municipalities in Harford County - Bel Air, Havre de Grace and Aberdeen - lease electronic voting machines from the county, said Jim Massey, director of Harford's Board of Elections.

Havre de Grace will use the computerized equipment in its city election today.

Bel Air has leased voting machines from Harford for all municipal elections in the past 20 years, said Joyce Oliver, Bel Air's town administrator.

"Whatever the county is using, that is what we use," Oliver said. "It helps that our elections are in odd years, when the county does not need the machines."

In 2002, larger municipalities in Montgomery and Prince George's counties became the first in Maryland to go electronic for local elections, said Paul Aumayr, the technical specialist on voting systems for the state Board of Elections. More recently, Salisbury and Cambridge on the Eastern Shore started using the machines in their elections, Aumayr said.

Though the Carroll County seat of Westminster hasn't switched to electronic voting, the city uses a more complicated system than plain paper: pull-lever machines.

For each biennial election, Westminster leases the machines from a New Jersey company. For its election Monday, the city will pay $2,000 for the rental and delivery of four machines, plus $45 an hour for a technician to set up and man them, Westminster City Clerk Laurell E. Taylor said.

The city's election judges prefer the pull-lever machines over to the computerized ones, Taylor said.

Meanwhile, the three election judges working in Taneytown yesterday said the paper ballots suited them just fine.

"See, our ballot is just so simple," said Jean Harman, 79, who has worked the polls for 20 years. "Why complicate a system that isn't broke?"

Sun reporter Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.

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