Baltimore County orders extra voting scanners, but not as many as elections officials say are needed

Baltimore County is ordering extra ballot scanning machines for four dozen of the county's busiest polling locations — far fewer than the 200-plus scanners sought by county elections officials.

Rob Stradling, the county’s information technology director, said Tuesday that paying for 47 scanners for polling sites and five backup locations represents a “fiscally responsible” solution to easing lengthy backups that frustrated voters during the 2016 election.

Stradling said the additional machines and other changes — such as having existing machines serviced, having manufacturer representatives on hand on Election Day and tweaking training for election judges — should make the voting process more efficient.

His office spent five months researching the problem and posted its findings online Tuesday.

But the county’s top elections official had sought much more. Director of Elections Katie Brown has previously asked the county to purchase a second ballot scanner for each of its 236 polling precincts. Only one precinct had two scanners in 2016.

When the scanners malfunctioned at other precincts or when polling places experienced a high volume of voters, it led to bottlenecks, said Brown.

“We saw in 2016 that once the line backs up, due to whatever reason at the scanning location, it’s hard to recover from that,” Brown said.

Brown said she wants to have two ballot scanners “just about everywhere” for the 2018 elections. That way, lines to scan ballots should be shorter, and there’s a redundancy if one of the scanners breaks down, she said.

“I want to make sure everyone has what they need to get out there and vote,” Brown said.

Some jurisdictions, including Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, had two scanners at each polling place in 2016, according to Linda Lamone, state elections administrator.

Maryland switched to a paper-based balloting system for elections last year. Voters mark ballots with markers, then feed them into a machine that scans them and tabulates the votes.

Baltimore County was one of several jurisdictions that reported problems with long lines and slow scanners.

The scanners are leased from a vendor, Election Systems & Software, under a master contract with the state. The cost for the scanners is split evenly between the county and the state.

Brown’s proposal would cost the county about $600,000 for its half, while Stradling’s purchase of 52 machines is costing the county about $60,000.

“I know the county wants to be fiscally responsible. I get that. But I have to look at the big picture,” Brown said. “If I’m at the max now, using every piece of equipment, I have to do something.”

Stradling said leasing extra scanners would be rewarding the vendor for a product that he says is “not up to par.”

He said his team reviewed data from the scanners, then ran trials on the best-performing and worst-performing scanners. Some scanners popped up with error messages as frequently as once for every four ballots scanned, requiring the voter to reinsert the ballot to be scanned again.

After the vendor was brought in to service the scanners, the machines’ performance improved.

Jody Moscaritolo, a senior analyst for the Office of Information Technology, said having the representatives for the vendor available on Election Day would help solve problems with the scanners. The election judges can be better trained to respond to scanner error messages, too.

Placing two scanners only makes sense at the busiest precincts, said Moscaritolo — which he described as ones with at least 1,500 voters on Election Day. In Baltimore County, that translates to 47 sites.

Putting two scanners everywhere is “not the most fiscally responsible way of solving the issue of voter wait,” he said.

County Council Chairman Tom Quirk said council members have expressed a “very strong concern” about the need for more ballot scanners. Council members experienced delays themselves last year and also got an earful from constituents.

“It makes sense to have more more optical scanners, but no doubt about it, it’s expensive,” said Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat.

Quirk said he’d reserve judgment on how many more scanners would be the right number until he reads the Office of Information Technology report.

“We want to make sure all voters, no matter who they are voting for, get in and get out as soon as possible,” he said.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat who is running for governor in 2018, was not available for comment, but said through a spokesman he supports the Office of Information Technology’s recommendations.

pwood@baltsun.com

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