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Elections chief predicts smooth absentee voting

Maryland's top elections official expressed confidence Friday that the state will deliver absentee ballots to voters smoothly and on time despite a change in plans ordered just two months before the June 24 primary.

The State Board of Elections decided this week not to move forward with a system that would have allowed voters who receive an absentee ballot through the Internet to mark their choices on a computer screen before printing the ballot and mailing it in.

Linda H. Lamone, administrator of the elections board, said the agency will do what is needed to comply with the decision of the five-member panel.

Board Chairwoman Bobbie Sue Mack had expressed concern about whether the decision Thursday left staff enough time to reprogram the system to eliminate the ballot-marking tool in time for the primary.

Lamone said she believes the agency is up to the task.

"It was all ready to go, but now we have to go back to square one and get it re-readied," she said. "Knowing the staff here, they will make it happen."

About 25,000 Marylanders cast absentee ballots in a typical primary, Lamone said. Under federal law, absentee ballots for this year's primary must be sent to overseas and military voters by May 9. Lamone said ballots for other voters would begin going out a week later.

She said voters who want ballots mailed to them would not be affected by this week's action and that adequate safeguards are in place for voters who want the ballots emailed to them.

Lamone and her staff have interpreted the board's action as preventing them from offering the ballot-marking function — which had been eagerly anticipated by advocates for the disabled — but allowing them to go forward with the part of the system that would let any voter go online to ask for and receive an absentee ballot over the Internet.

If that interpretation stands, the board decision will be a hollow victory for election security advocates who had opposed both parts of the system.

Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor, said the delivery system opens the door to election fraud much wider than the marking tool would have. Greenberger contends that the two systems are inseparable and that the board's decision to offer online delivery is inconsistent with state law. He said he does not plan to sue.

Lamone is basing her plans on the advice of the board's counsel, who told members that the question before them Thursday was certification of the marking tool alone. That action would have required four of five votes. When it became clear there were only two votes for certification, the matter was dropped without a formal vote.

It was not clear Friday who, if anybody, might challenge that legal opinion.

Rebecca Wilson, co-director of a group that opposes the online delivery and marking system, said the board appears to have found a loophole in state law but is acting irresponsibly in using the delivery system.

"I'm not going to threaten a lawsuit, but I think they're leaving themselves vulnerable to a candidate contesting the election," said Wilson of SAVE our Votes.

The system the state intends to use is not Internet voting because voters do not transmit finished ballots online. But Wilson said her group is concerned that online delivery and marking could be an "incremental move" in that direction.

Election Integrity Maryland, another group that opposes the system, said it is consulting with the national conservative group Judicial Watch on what to do next.

Lamone said she's more concerned about the possibility of a legal challenge from disability-rights advocates, who see the marking tool as the key to allowing the blind and those with mobility problems to cast a secret ballot.

A spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind, which worked with the board to develop the marking tool, said the group has not decided whether to go to court. Alyssa R. Fieo, director of legal advocacy for the Maryland Disability Law Center, said her organization is exploring legal options.

Del. Jon S. Cardin, the Baltimore County Democrat who heads the House elections subcommittee, said he believes the board members were right to withhold certification if they weren't sure the marking system was secure.

Cardin, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for Maryland attorney general, said the state needs to weigh the competing goals of accessibility and security.

"It's always a balancing act," he said. "You're never going to have a perfect system."

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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