As the Senate considers passage tonight of legislation that would require the state's new electronic voting machines to produce paper records of cast ballots, bill opponents warn that a paper trail could jeopardize the validity of future elections and violate the secrecy of ballots cast by blind voters.
Those who support the bill say that upgrading the state's 16,000 touch-screen voting machines to print paper receipts would boost public confidence in the system, which experts hired by the state found is susceptible to vote-switching.
Voters would be able to review the receipt and correct any errors made by a machine before leaving the polling place. The receipts would be saved by the state and could be tallied against a computer count should a recount be required.
But paper trail critics say security flaws have been exaggerated by some computer scientists and that printed receipts are no safeguard against election fraud. The chances of receipts being lost, altered or removed from a box are higher than the possibility of a hacker performing undetectable tampering, they contend.
"The mistake that people make is in believing that the minute they've left the voting booth, the right thing will happen with that piece of paper," said Michael Shamos, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and expert on voting equipment certification. "Any time a human being can touch a piece of paper, it can be changed."
And if an electronic voting machine is rigged, what a paper receipt shows and what the machine counts could still be two different things, paper trail critics add.
Advocates for visually impaired voters are concerned that the paper trail requirement will strip them of their right to a secret ballot and place Maryland in violation of the Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress in 2002, which requires that voting machines be accessible to the disabled without the help of a third party. Maryland follows federal standards for certifying its voting system, but none exists for the paper receipts or the printers that would produce them.
"We're going to have to have someone help us [read the receipt]," said Sharon Maneki, president of the Maryland chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, noting that Maryland's March 2 primary elections marked the first time blind and visually impaired voters were able to vote without assistance. "We just got the secret ballot and now they're taking it away from us."
Manufactured by Ohio-based Diebold Election Systems, the AccuVote-TS voting machines have a voice-guidance system that presents ballot information to the blind via headphones, allowing them to make selections with a keypad. Diebold officials say their voting machine is a vast improvement over past ones since it also allows ballots to appear in multiple languages and prevents over-voting, under-voting and hanging chads.
Leaders of truevotemd.org, the citizens' group leading the campaign for an auditable paper trail, say it is not their intention to undermine access for the disabled and that they support paper trail technology that allows the disabled and those with limited English skills to verify their vote without help.
"We hope they will join us in realizing that voting in secret doesn't matter if your vote is switched to another candidate," Nancy Wallace, co-director of the Takoma Park-based group, said of the disabled community. "Without a paper audit trail we are all blind, because we can't see inside the machine to know how it is recording our vote."
But advocates for the disabled say they are wary of using any paper trail system that has not been thoroughly tested and for which there are no federal standards.
The collision of interests could generate lawsuits against Maryland from civil rights groups should the bill become law, state election officials say. The American Association of People with Disabilities and two other groups sued California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley this month after he required that all touch-screen voting machines have a paper trail system for use by voters, including the visually impaired, in time for the 2006 elections.
The suit claims the directive decertifies the machines and has led election officials in Los Angeles and Sacramento to halt plans to purchase more of the touch-screen terminals.
Tonight, the full Senate is scheduled to vote on Senate Bill 393, which would require Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to find up to $15 million, according to legislative aides, to upgrade the machines in time for the Nov. 2 presidential elections.
Given time and fiscal constraints, bill sponsors are considering changing the legislation to temporarily require that each of the state's 1,787 precincts have at least one machine capable of printing paper receipts. A House version of the bill calls for creating a paper trail in time for the 2006 election.
Willing to upgrade
Diebold spokesman David K. Bear said the touch-screen machines -- which cost the state $55 million -- have built-in printers that are used to print vote totals at the close of an election, but that they are not set up to print individual receipts for voters to verify. If Maryland asked for such a feature, Bear said the company would comply.
Paper trail critics note out that printers jam, run out of ink and are an added cost for a system meant to lessen reliance on paper. To ensure security, they recommend measures such as keeping the voting system off-line during an election and using third-party software to verify election results.
"We understand the need for security, but a piece of paper isn't going to give it to you," Maneki said. "People are looking for comfort and there's a difference between comfort and security."