What's the rush?

September 07, 2007

We applaud the effort under way in Congress to increase confidence in the integrity of voting machines used around the country, but draw no comfort from a mandate that Maryland and five other states would have a year or less to replace the expensive equipment just recently purchased.

The very worthy goal of legislation expected to be taken up shortly by the House is to ensure that electronic or computerized voting equipment provide a paper backup system that can be used to verify that votes were cast as intended and to double-check tallies in the event of a recount.

But the November 2008 timetable for buying and installing such equipment - plus training elections board staff and volunteer judges - is a recipe for more of the human-error-inspired chaos that has proved the greatest bane of the current voting equipment.

Before enacting such legislation, Congress must push back the deadline until at least 2010 and make sure it comes through quickly with enough money to pay for what would be a second statewide overhaul of voting machinery in less than a decade. Maryland hasn't even gotten all it was promised yet for the federally required equipment Congress now proposes to junk.

In some ways, the measure sponsored by Rep. Rush D. Holt, a New Jersey Democrat, is timely for Maryland. This year, the General Assembly enacted and Gov. Martin O'Malley signed into law a measure that would replace all the touch-screen voting machines in Maryland with optical scanners, which read paper ballots marked by voters to indicate their choices. Anne Arundel County used such machines for years before the 2000 presidential election confusion in Florida prompted a stampede toward the touch-screen equipment.

But the new state law doesn't take effect unless an estimated $36 million becomes available to pay for all the costs associated with installing new equipment - an unlikely event given the current $1.5 billion deficit.

Potentially, Mr. Holt's legislation, which promises $1 billion in federal help to the states, could solve that problem. Only if the money comes through, however, and almost certainly not in time for a smooth transition before the November 2008 presidential election.

Again, we understand the importance of ensuring confidence in balloting that often these days decides elections by the barest of margins. But no model of voting machine is utterly tamper-free, and certainly none is worth acquiring so quickly that the odds of simple human error are increased exponentially.

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