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Online ballot system in question after Board of Elections action

The future of a system that would let voters download absentee ballots before mailing them in was cast into doubt Thursday when the State Board of Elections refused to move forward with part of the plan amid fears it would open the door to widespread fraud.

The five-member panel declined to certify a system for marking the ballots on a computer screen despite assurances from its staff that the system was secure and ready to be used in this year's June primary and November general elections.

No formal tally was taken, but it was clear the approval was two votes short of the four-vote supermajority required. Both Republican members opposed the certification, and they were joined by one of the three Democrats.

Opponents of the system were jubilant over the outcome.

"Sanity prevailed," said Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor and founder of its Center for Health and Homeland Security. "If this system had been adopted, Maryland would have had a voting system that was the most subject to fraud in the country."

Though some opponents cast the board's plan as an effort to introduce voting by Internet, that was not what was at stake. Instead, the board was being asked to certify the safety of a system authorized by the General Assembly in 2013 that would have allowed any voter at home or abroad to go online to download a ballot and fill it out on a computer before printing it and mailing it in.

Despite the assurances of two consultants that the system is safe, a majority of the board members would not give the plan their seal of approval.

Left up in the air is exactly what the decision means. The board's staff, backed by an opinion from an assistant attorney general, interpreted it as letting the board proceed with its plan to deliver blank absentee ballots electronically to any voter who makes an online request. The voter would have to print the ballot and mark it manually before sending it in, the staff said.

Nikki Baines Charlson, deputy administrator of elections, said the only thing that was blocked was the part of the system that would let voters fill in their choices on their computers using marking programs such as voice-driven software for the blind.

Greenberger, however, contends that the two functions — online delivery of the ballot and marking it — are legally inseparable and that the board has in effect blocked all use of ballots delivered online.

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

Also in dispute is how the decision would affect military and overseas voters, who are guaranteed online access to absentee ballots under federal law. Charlson said the decision means that such voters will be able to download ballots but not mark them. Greenberger disagreed, saying the board's decision would have no effect on those voters' use of marking software because they are covered under federal law.

The board's action follows a long-running dispute that brought together a coalition of computer security advocates, including liberal Democrats, and conservative proponents of strict voter identification laws to defeat a move to make absentee voting significantly easier.

The marking technology has been eagerly anticipated by advocates for the disabled, who said the programs would enable blind and mobility-impaired people to cast secret ballots more easily.

Alyssa Fieo, director of legal advocacy at the Maryland Disability Law Center, said she was disappointed by the board's action.

"We think this was a lost opportunity to put the absentee ballot process in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act," she said. "Accessibility often requires the use of technology, and all voters could have benefited from the ease and usability of the new absentee ballot marking system."

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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