Maryland is about to enter a new age of electronic, touch-screen voting with tomorrow's primary election.
About 40 percent of the state's 2.7 million registered voters -- those who cast their ballots in Montgomery, Prince George's, Allegany and Dorchester counties -- will be voting on the electronic touch-screen machines tomorrow, according to state elections officials.
By 2006, the touch-screen machines will be in use statewide. Most counties will have them in place by 2004.
Elections officials predict a smooth transition, but others say the new voting machines could confuse voters and lead to problems at the polls.
"I am confident that the equipment and processes will work as designed and tested," said Linda H. Lamone, state administrator of elections.
The new machines had a limited test run in a series of small elections in the spring in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and worked well despite minor glitches, Lamone said.
"It went wonderfully," she said. "Ninety-seven percent of the voters absolutely loved it."
But others, like Louise B. Armentrout, who serves as Democratic Club president at a Montgomery County retirement community known as Leisure World, are wary of the new machines.
"There are going to be a lot of problems --particularly here in Leisure World where there are a lot of elderly people who are not that familiar with computers," sad Armentrout, 72.
Montgomery County has been using a punch-card voting system similar to the one in Florida that led to problems and controversy during the 2000 presidential election.
Armentrout said elections officials have demonstrated the touch-screen voting machines during several meetings at Leisure World.
"Personally I think they are fine," she said. "I had no problem with it. But I've heard some say that it is confusing. It's just the way they work. It is a change and this is a community where you don't make changes."
Margaret A. Jurgensen, election director for the Montgomery County Board of Elections, said her office has heard few complaints from those who tried the new voting machines during demonstrations at Leisure World and elsewhere.
"We've had about 92,000 people interact with the machines and, overall, 97 percent of the population had a positive response," Jurgensen said.
Still, a pair of researchers from the University of Maryland, College Park who tested the touch-screen machines warned that they could prove confusing for some voters.
"I use computers every day, 10 hours a day, and even I had to spend some time trying to figure out how to vote on it," said Paul S. Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the university.
"We thought it was a pretty good machine, but we found some flaws and some areas for improvement," he said.
Herrnson's review found, among other things, that one of two machines tested "exhibited catastrophic failure" and that "the system presents inconsistent terminology, which could confuse voters."
Lamone criticized the review done by Herrnson and another university researcher as "seriously flawed."
With the new voting system, voters touch a box next to the name of the candidate they want to select. At the end of the process, voters touch a button with the words "Cast Ballot."
A demonstration version of the voting system is posted on a state board of elections Web site -- www.mdvotes.org.
State election board officials said 5,096 touch-screen machines have been purchased for the four counties from Diebold Election Systems of Canton, Ohio, at a cost of about $15 million. An additional $20 million to $25 million will be needed to buy machines for the entire state, election officials said.
Other devices in use
While Montgomery County had been using a punch-card voting system, Prince George's, Allegany and Dorchester counties had been using older, lever voting machines.
Other Maryland counties use optical scan voting machines in which voters fill in the middle part of an arrow to make their selections, said Lamone. Baltimore uses an older version of a touch-screen voting machine, she said.
The new touch-screen system will solve one problem that existed with the punch-card system -- ballots being invalidated because of "overvotes."
More than 2,500 ballots were disqualified in Montgomery County in the 2000 presidential election because voters chose more than one candidate. The electronic touch-screen machines block such overvotes, according to state election officials.