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State elections chief rejects delay in using new voting system

A top election official has rejected a suggestion that Maryland delay using its new voting system.

The Hogan administration has raised concerns that Maryland's new $28 million voting system may not be ready for the April 26 primary, but the state's top election official has rejected the idea of delaying the launch and using old machines.

In a memo to the State Board of Elections obtained by The Baltimore Sun, elections administrator Linda H. Lamone warned that continuing to use Maryland's old touch-screen voting system would be "very risky."

Lamone told board members that "it has been suggested" the state use the older system for the primary with an eye to implementing the new one for the November general election. Her memo did not specify who offered the suggestion, but the Hogan administration acknowledged Friday that its Department of Information Technology had raised "grave concerns" about the state's new paper-based system.

"Due to these concerns, I believe the project as currently implemented cannot be a success," department chief of staff Albert Bullock warned Secretary David A. Garcia in a Nov. 5 memo provided by the agency.

Department spokesman Michael White said that while the agency has an oversight role in information technology projects, it doesn't make decisions on voting machines or the election process.

"Based upon numerous challenges the project has encountered, Secretary Garcia has expressed his strong concerns over the State Board of Elections' preparedness to successfully execute next year's primary election with the new voting system," White said. "However, Ms. Lamone has given Secretary Garcia assurances that the State Board of Elections is fully prepared to move forward with the new voting machines."

White said the department is prepared to help the elections board if Lamone requests assistance.

For the past decade, Maryland has used a touch-screen system that critics consider inadequate because it doesn't produce a paper trail that can be checked in close elections. For next year's elections, the state acquired a system that creates a verifiable paper record and tried it out in two municipal elections last week and a mock election in October.

Maryland has had a checkered history of implementing large computer-based projects — most famously, the failed rollout of the state's health care benefits exchange under Gov. Martin O'Malley. But unlike that system, which could be replaced and upgraded for the next open-enrollment period, there is no easy way to rerun an election.

The elections board met Friday in Annapolis and went into closed session to discuss the new system. Lamone declined to be interviewed for this article.

The board — made up of three Republicans and two Democrats as a result of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's victory in last year's election — operates under a law requiring a 4-1 supermajority to make a decision. Because the board has already approved a new $28.4 million Elections Systems & Software voting system, it would take four votes to override Lamone and delay its implementation.

In her memo, Lamone forcefully urged the board not to do so.

"We have held a mock election that was successful," she wrote. "The consensus of state and local elections officials was that the system performed well, and the mock election identified where new procedures and documents need to be tweaked before the upcoming elections."

Nikki Baines Charlson, deputy elections administrator, noted that the new paper balloting system was tested in two municipal elections in Rockville and College Park.

"The system worked as we expected in both the mock election and the municipal elections," Charlson said.

However, at least one local election board reported that the mock election did not go smoothly. In Howard County, elections director Donna Thewes sent a report to the county board Oct. 26 saying that of 5,060 votes cast in the mock election there, 3,300 were lost.

In his memo, Bullock also raised concerns about the mock election, saying it was not a true test of whether the system would hold up in an actual election.

Bullock also expressed concern about whether the contractor is being held to proper standards, whether the state elections board is doing sufficient contingency planning and whether the security of the new system has been verified.

But in her memo, Lamone said a law enacted by the General Assembly requires the board to adopt a voting system for the 2016 election that creates a paper record of all votes so that if there is a need to do a recount, elections officials can follow an "audit trail" that permits manual counting.

Lamone said that if the state were to attempt to use its old "legacy" system, it would have enough machines for the primary but not for the general election. She also warned that replacement parts are no longer being made for the old system.

P. J. Hogan, a Democratic member of the state elections board, declined to share details from Friday's briefing but said he still didn't understand why the information technology department wanted to delay use of the paper ballots. He said from what he'd been told, the mock election and municipal voting "went off without a hitch."

"State law is we have a paper ballot system, where there's a paper trail," P. J. Hogan said. "The legacy system does not have that. So everyone wants to move forward to that new system and do everything to make that happen."

David J. McManus Jr., the Republican chairman of the board, called the matter "an honest difference of opinion between agencies."

"There will be full discussion on this as we go forward to evaluate the readiness of the system for the election," he said. McManus said that while the board's next scheduled meeting is in January, he has the authority to call a special meeting before then.

Baltimore Sun reporter Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

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