When I first voted in Baltimore County, I thought I'd found election nirvana. Instead of waiting in a long line for one of four voting machines, I got a paper ballot and directions to one of a dozen little stand-up desks.
The ballot was clear and unambiguous. With a felt-tip marker I completed a little arrow next to the name of each candidate I wanted. Then I slipped the ballot into an optical scanner. It was the fastest ballot I'd ever cast.
I thought this combination of paper and computers was a great system, and I still do. It's fast and clear. It provides quick, computerized tabulation when the polls close. Most important, its paper ballots can be rescanned or counted by hand if there's a dispute or a glitch in the electronics.
So why are Maryland and many other jurisdictions eager to throw out perfectly good, reliable voting systems like Baltimore County's in favor of all-electronic, touch-screen machines - when computer security experts warn against it?
From the election bureaucracy's standpoint, there are good reasons. Touch-screen systems are a convenient solution to the problems that confronted Florida voters in the presidential election of 2000. That's when the previous convenient solution - a computerized punch card system - collapsed and thew the outcome into doubt for a month.
There's plenty of money. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 authorized $3.8 billion to replace punch card and mechanical voting machines by 2006.
The law doesn't forbid hybrid optical scanning systems like Baltimore County's. But it does require that voting machines be accessible to the disabled without the help of a third party. Electronic systems fit this bill because they can be equipped with audio accessories to read ballot choices to the blind.
Finally - and this may be the deciding factor - election administrators hate paper ballots. Even if a machine does the counting, the bewildering, overlapping structure of local, state and congressional districts makes paper ballots an expensive nightmare to create, print, store and distribute.
So why the fuss over electronic voting? According to a vocal and, until now, largely ignored group of computer scientists, no one really knows what's going on inside the black boxes that count the votes. They may or may not work. They might or might not be compromised. The software is "certified" by federal and state governments under standards that are weak, vague and not finalized, critics say.
Nor do political parties, candidates and ordinary citizens have the right to examine the source code behind the software. It's considered proprietary - the company that made the electronic machine doesn't have to show it to the public.
Last week, the Johns Hopkins University analyzed a sample of the source code behind touch-screen machines from Diebold Inc., which supplies Maryland and many other states with new electronic systems.
The researchers concluded that a teen-ager with a smart-card reader could con the system into letting a person vote repeatedly. Worse, the internal programming that counts the votes could be subverted by people with access to the machines.
Diebold officials attacked the study, saying the scientists looked at outdated code that was never used. In a point-by-point rebuttal posted yesterday (www.diebold.com), they said the certification progress was rigorous, and that checks and balances would prevent fraud.
Linda H. Lamone, Maryland's chief election official, defended her agency's decision to buy $56 million worth of the machines.
"Not only did the Diebold system pass a strict state and federal certification process, but it also passed the one certification process that matters most - an election. The system performed flawlessly and earned the trust of Maryland's election officials and voters, particularly the visually impaired and blind voters," she declared.
That a system works well when nobody challenges the results doesn't mean it won't fall apart in a close election. Heck, Florida's punch cards worked for years - and when they failed, at least the rivals had hanging chads to argue over.
We have to ask ourselves whether we trust technology alone to provide a reliable, honest vote count without a backup.
Election administrators like Lamone will play the "disabled" card, casting opponents of electronic systems as enemies of the physically challenged. The National Federation of the Blind gave Diebold a ringing endorsement - at the same time it's suing Baltimore County to implement a touch-screen system.
But here's a question: Suppose all buildings were required to have elevators to accommodate the handicapped. And suppose, to save money, the government changed the building code to eliminate stairways because everyone could use the same elevators. What happens in a fire?
Is it better to establish a voting system with a paper backup and then devise special terminals for the blind? Or a system that works OK for everybody - when it works - at the price of eliminating the best way to solve disputes when it doesn't?