Paper ballot cuts

Our view : Caution is in order after Maryland's quest for a voting machine that is reliable, secure and accessible to the disabled runs into a reality check

March 09, 2009

Is it really possible that a nation that can land a man on the moon and map the human genome can't produce a voting machine that is reliable, secure and fully accessible to the disabled? If such a device exists, it couldn't be found in Maryland last week.

And since last Thursday was the official close of bidding for the state's next generation of voting machines (this time with an adequate paper trail), that's troubling news.

The problem may come down to bad timing. Just as Maryland may have invested in touch-screen machines too soon after the 2000 election debacle (and before all the bugs were worked out and potential shortcomings acknowledged), it appears optical-scan machines aren't necessarily ready for prime time, either - at least not if the physically disabled are to use them.

As anyone who has voted by optical scan can attest - and they've been used extensively in Maryland in the past - there is a two-step process: filling out a ballot and feeding it into a scanner. Because of this, a person who lacks manual skills can't vote as independently and privately as state and federal law requires.

One compromise would be to invest in optical scan but also offer touch-screen machines in every polling place and let voters choose to cast ballots by either device. But during a recession when budgets are tight, who could justify spending millions of dollars on what would be at best a transitional hybrid?

At stake is $39 million, no small chunk of change. And that's not only an expense for the state, it's a burden on local governments that are scheduled to kick in a first partial payment of $2.5 million this year.

Certainly, there are serious concerns about the security of the touch-screen machines. That's why the legislature unanimously approved the move to a paper ballot two years ago. But if the industry hasn't yet produced an adequate voting machine replacement - and the federal government hasn't certified it - the state ought not rush in and throw money at the first available alternative.

Let's remember: Last year's election was remarkably trouble-free. Given that experience, the General Assembly's best choice is to allow the State Board of Elections to stand pat and wait for voting machine manufacturers to devise a better alternative and for federal authorities to test and certify it. To do otherwise would be to flagrantly waste taxpayer dollars at a time when they are more precious than ever.

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