A federal judge in Baltimore ordered Maryland elections officials to adopt an online absentee voting tool in time for this year's general election, despite warnings from computer security experts that the system could lead to voter fraud.

The ruling was sought by a group of disabled voters and the National Federation of the Blind, who say the tool will make it easier for people with disabilities to cast ballots without relying on another person.

"The court today has protected the fundamental rights of voters with disabilities, including the rights to equal access and to a secret ballot," said Mark Riccobono, president of the federation.

The tool, developed in-house by the Maryland State Board of Elections, allows voters to receive a ballot over the Internet and fill it out on a computer. The completed ballot must be printed and mailed to a local elections board.

The tool had the backing of the professional staff of the elections board but failed to get enough support from its appointed members to win approval. The National Federation of the Blind and disabled voters sued the elections board in May, contending that withholding the tool violated federal law.

In a 33-page ruling issued Thursday, U.S. Judge Richard D. Bennett accepted that argument and ordered the state to adopt the system.

"This Court finds that Plaintiffs have been denied meaningful access to the State's absentee ballot voting program as mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act," he wrote.

The ruling applies only to this year's election and opens the door only for people with disabilities to use the tool, even though any Maryland voter is entitled to an absentee ballot.

Bennett described how Janice Toothman, one of the plaintiffs, testified about her struggles to use a voting machine at a polling place. She had to wait for a machine she could use, the judge wrote. Even then she found it hard to make her selections because in addition to being blind, Toothman has limited hearing and the audio prompts were difficult to hear.

Toothman's lawyers wrote in a court filing that her choices on Election Day amounted to a "guess." Her home computer features a Braille screen that will allow her to complete her ballot in private and without another person's help, advocates say. And blind and other voters without hearing problems will be able to listen to instructions and complete their ballots independently at home.

While the tool offers disabled people advantages over voting in person or using a mail-in ballot filled out by hand, computer security experts warned that sending election information over the Internet creates opportunities for fraud.

"This rash and headlong forcing of its use this November makes a mockery of ballot secrecy in the great state of Maryland and jeopardizes the integrity and trustworthiness of Maryland elections," said Susan Greenhalgh, an advocate for election computer security.

Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor and founder of its Center for Health and Homeland Security, has said the tool would make Maryland's voting system "the most subject to fraud in the country."

Greenberger said the security threat lies in letting voters obtain a ballot — or potentially multiple ballots — by downloading them from a website.

In July, a majority of the five-member state elections board endorsed using the system, but the measure failed to win the four-vote supermajority it needed. David J. McManus Jr., a Republican member of the board who voted against the tool, testified at the trial that he was unimpressed with security tests.

The board staff hired a computer security consultant, who analyzed the system and concluded that it was secure. But an expert associated with the Verified Voting Foundation, Greenhalgh's group, tested the Maryland tool and argued that it could be hacked. Even though the completed ballots must be mailed, voting information is sent from a user's computer to servers at the elections board, the group's report said, and voters' privacy could not be guaranteed.

Bennett acknowledged the risks in his opinion, but wrote that they did not outweigh the potential benefits of the tool.

"The risks to voters' privacy are not overwhelming and are capable of mitigation," he wrote. "Accordingly, this court finds that, although not perfect, the online ballot marking tool is a reasonable accommodation."

Nikki Baines Charlson, the election board's deputy administrator, said officials are ready to start final testing so the system can be used for the coming general election, and will be on the lookout for security problems.

"There are risks that exist in the current absentee process of mailing," she said. "When you move a system to online, you have different risks."

The board's aim, Charlson said, is to prevent whatever fraud it can and make sure it detects the rest. "That security analysis and monitoring never stops here," she said.

A similar online absentee voting tool was used during the 2012 elections, but a change in state law meant the elections board had to submit it to a new certification process.

Maryland officials surveyed other states and found just two that have adopted online tools specifically to help disabled voters, but some jurisdictions have gone further than Maryland in allowing voters to use electronic voting methods, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia allow ballots to be returned by email or fax, and in Alaska, any voter can submit a vote through a web-based system, as can Arizona voters who are overseas.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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