As many Marylanders cast their first votes on new touch-screen machines yesterday, the process was deemed, at the same time, a rousing success and a dismal failure. It all depends on who was doing the judging.
Election directors said reluctant senior citizens embraced the machines, pointed to the thousands of precincts where the process ran smoothly and reminded voters that past elections weren't perfect either.
"We had a few problems, as we would with any voting system, and that's because we have people involved," said Linda H. Lamone, administrator of the state Board of Elections. "I don't think it's too soon to say it's working well."
Opponents of the new system listed at least three precincts - in Annapolis, Parkville and Takoma Park - where computers failed in the morning. They said some voters walked away without casting ballots.
"It's a failure," said Kevin Zeese, co-director of Takoma Park-based www.truevotemd .org, a loose coalition that distributed pamphlets at some precincts encouraging voters to ask for paper ballots.
"This is a test run, and the test run didn't work."
In the Super Tuesday primary elections held yesterday across the country, many voters cast their first electronic ballots and some experienced high-tech problems, all described as minor.
Maryland bought 16,000 of the devices, which resemble automated teller machines, for $55.6 million after the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida.
Critics have argued that the system doesn't provide a paper trail to verify votes and that the system can be manipulated.
Election officials and the manufacturer, Diebold Election Systems of Ohio, have attempted to dispel concerns by taking the machines into community settings to show people how they work.
Four Maryland counties - none in the Baltimore region - used the machines in 2002 and many areas have used them in municipal or special elections since then.
Debut on large scale
But yesterday marked their widespread debut. Every jurisdiction except Baltimore City used the machines. Baltimore is scheduled to get them in 2006.
Lamone said the biggest "hiccup" came yesterday morning at an Annapolis middle school, where voters were forced to use paper ballots because the high-tech systems weren't working.
Two voters lodged complaints, a handful walked away and others complimented the election workers on how well they handled the crisis.
"I saw some people leave because they were on a tight schedule to get to work," said Tony Evans, 66, of Annapolis. He was one of about 75 people to cast provisional ballots on paper.
The same scene was repeated at Parkville Senior Center in Baltimore County and in Takoma Park, Montgomery County. At those precincts, voters briefly used provisional ballots while election workers tried to fix the encoders used to program ballot cards. Those ballot cards are inserted in the machines to bring up the ballot onto the screen.
In each case, the precincts had the wrong encoders.
"We've had a couple of complaints but nothing more than we'd normally have during an election," said Anne Arundel County election director Barbara Fisher.
In Harford County, elections director Molly Neal said workers dropped one machine and another wouldn't hold a charge.
In Baltimore County at Milbrook Elementary School, voters said they arrived at 7 a.m. only to be told the machines wouldn't be working until 7:30.
While Howard County officials reported no problems, Carroll County election workers apparently forgot to plug in some of the machines.
Around the area, many voters who don't feel comfortable with computers said they walked in apprehensive and walked away pleased.
"I think it was two minutes, I'm in, I'm out, I'm on with my day," said Alfreda White, 65, a retired nurse from Randallstown. "I love it, I love it, I love it."
Said Jeanette Busick of Taneytown, who voted in Carroll County, "I read the instructions and found this is the easiest vote I have ever had."
And U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democratic candidate, can thank the new system for at least one vote.
Donald Mackall, 55, of Odenton in Anne Arundel, voted against the incumbent. But at the end of his session when the machine displayed all his votes, he had a change of heart and voted for the senator.
Under the old system, he would have kept going with no chance to flip-flop.
"I like," he said, "that you can change your mind."
Sun staff writers Andrew A. Green, Mary Gail Hare, Larry Carson and Johnathon E. Briggs contributed to this article.
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