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Maryland ditches touch screen machines for early voting

Maryland may explore ditching touch screen voting machines in favor of paper ballots.

Early voters in April's primary will cast their ballots on paper that will be scanned by a machine — just as election day voters will — after Maryland elections officials on Thursday nixed the use of touch screen machines for early voting.

The change was made after elections officials said they realized that many primary contests will feature long lists of candidates that can't fit on one screen, and some candidates threatened legal action for being stuck on a second or third screen.

"The fairest, most viable and reasonable solution is paper ballots," said Patrick J. Hogan, a former state senator who is vice chairman of the Maryland State Board of Elections. Board members voted 5-0 in favor of the switch to paper ballots for early voting.

Each early voting location will have at least one touch screen machine available for voters with disabilities who cannot vote with the paper ballot. Judges will need to be trained to alert them to the issues with races that have multiple screens of candidates, officials said.

The state's touch screen machines — which are different from ones used in recent elections — can fit seven candidates on a screen. At least half-a-dozen races in the primary feature more candidates than that, including the 12 Republican nominees for president and 13 Democrats vying for mayor of Baltimore.

State elections administrator Linda H. Lamone said the decision to switch to paper was made after realizing the touch-screen navigational tools were not user-friendly for voters making decisions in races with multiple screens' worth of candidates.

"We didn't realize how unintuitive the navigation tools were," Lamone said.

The issue first came up in Rockville's city elections last year. And Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Cathleen M. Vitale, who will be up for election this year, raised concerns at a Jan. 21 elections board meeting, according to the meeting minutes. Vitale did not respond to a request for comment.

In recent weeks, some candidates have suggested they may pursue legal action if the touch-screen machines were used.

"We got some not so subtle threats about litigation from candidates who would be on the second page," Lamone said.

As recently as last week, however, Lamone said publicly that elections officials and machine manufacturer Election Systems & Software had devised a fix and were ready to go forward with them for early voting.

During a briefing for lawmakers last Friday, elections officials set up a touch screen machine with mock elections for decisions such as "favorite Olympic sports" and "favorite Maryland symbols." For elections with more than seven choices, a "more" button blinked at the bottom and the voter was prevented from voting for the race until viewing all of the candidates.

"We have corrected that going forward," Lamone told lawmakers at the time.

But before Thursday's vote to switch to paper, Lamone explained that voters could get tangled in the "more" and "previous" buttons, accidentally going back to a prior contest instead of a prior page of candidates.

Switching to paper ballots for early voting — which runs from April 14 through April 21 at 66 locations across the state — will require adjustments by state and local elections workers.

More ballots will have to be printed and distributed to early voting centers. The total cost of printing extra paper ballots has not yet been determined, though they are about 21 cents each.

Some jurisdictions will face a logistical challenge in dealing with stocking dozens of types of paper ballots at the early voting centers.

In Baltimore, for example, there are dozens of combinations of City Council districts and Congressional districts, which means there could be as many as 84 types of ballots, depending on where a voter lives and what their party is, said Armstead B.C. Jones, the city's elections director. Because a Baltimore voter can vote at any of the city's six early voting centers, each center must have all 84 ballots available. Election judges will have to make sure they give each voter the proper ballot.

Prince George's County also will have dozens of ballot styles, but most counties will have fewer than a dozen.

Jones said he'll have to find the money and the staff to pull off the switch to paper ballots. "We suck it up and we get it done. Whatever comes up, that's what we do. We have to get to the end product, which is the end of the election," he said.

Local elections offices pay for the election judges, while the cost of printing ballots is split between the state and the local elections offices.

But state elections officials said Thursday they don't think it will be too hard for local elections staff to make the switch to paper for early voting. After all, they're already being trained to handle paper ballots for election day on April 26, Hogan said. The switch "shouldn't be a bigger deal than it really is," he said.

The voting machines were preferred for early voting because they can store all the various ballot styles, which is more convenient than printing out and keeping organized so many paper ballots. For election day voting, each polling location will need to have just two ballot styles on hand — one for Democrats and one for Republicans.

Del. Kathy Szeliga, who is running in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, is keenly aware of the challenges of having a name at the end of the ballot, no matter what type of voting system is used.

"It's certainly a challenge that every election, anybody with a last name at the end of the alphabet faces," she said.

Szeliga was slated to be listed 12th among the 14 candidates in her race on the voting machines.

David Warnock, who would have appeared 11th out of 13 Democratic candidates for Baltimore's mayor, was not terribly concerned about the issue.

The job of candidates is to prove they are qualified and that remains the same "whether you are on the bottom of a paper ballot or on the second screen" of a machine, said Anastasia Apa, Warnock's campaign manager.

During the 2014 elections, 19.1 percent of primary voters cast ballots during early voting and 17.6 percent of voters during the general election cast ballots during early voting.

The primary election day is April 26. Early voting is scheduled to run from April 14 through April 21.

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