Paper voting unlikely

No vendor able to meet tomorrow's bid deadline

General Assembly 2009

March 04, 2009|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

Two years after the General Assembly authorized a switch to a paper-ballot voting system, state elections officials warn that no vendor would be able to meet the law's stringent requirements by tomorrow's bidding deadline.

Maryland's move to paper ballots also has raised concerns among the disabled community, which objects to a system that diminishes voting privacy because some would need assistance to complete paper ballots. And fiscal conservatives say the estimated five-year cost of nearly $39 million is too much to pay when the state is struggling to balance its budget.

The problems are so vexing that some are suggesting delaying implementation of a system that provides a verifiable paper trail beyond the 2010 elections.

Lawmakers are considering several bills addressing their 2007 decision to dump touch-screen equipment and buy new optical-scan machines, which read paper ballots filled in by voters with pencil or pen and allow for a manual recount. The decision stemmed from complaints that the touch-screen system was unreliable and susceptible to tampering.

The State Board of Elections warned that unless lawmakers pass emergency legislation, the agency won't be able to purchase a new system. The law requires that the new system be certified by certain laboratories and meet federal guidelines for voters with disabilities. But no optical-scan voting system meets those standards, officials said.

One proposal from Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat, would tweak those requirements so that bidders would qualify.

Another, from Del. Jon S. Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat, would create a hybrid system that keeps the touch-screen voting machines in place for people with disabilities but also implements an optical-scan voting system. Voters could choose which to use.

Cardin said his bill would reduce the overall cost by as much as $10 million because the state wouldn't have to buy an expensive touch-screen machine that allows the blind, deaf and other disabled people to vote on their own and then prints out a paper ballot.

Advocates for the disabled raised questions about any system that sets up a separate process at the voting booth. "We are concerned that Maryland could set a precedent in law that the disabled can be treated differently," said Douglas G. Towne, who is blind and works with Accessing Digital America, an advocacy group.

Another bill, introduced by Del. Adelaide C. Eckardt, an Eastern Shore Republican, would delay implementation of the paper-ballot system until 2016, or until after the state finishes paying off the current touch-screen voting system, whichever happens later.

Michael Sanderson from the Maryland Association of Counties, which has steadfastly opposed spending money on the new system, noted that new federal regulations expected in 2012 may necessitate yet another system. Replacing a "fully functioning voting system" would be "a poor priority for scarce resources," he said.

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