FREE AND FAIR elections are such a cornerstone of our democracy that all guesswork must be removed from tabulating the results. If a recount is needed, it should leave no doubt that the recorded outcome reflects the voters' wishes.
No such guarantee comes with the more than 11,000 touch-screen voting machines Maryland officials have contracted to buy. There is no paper trail; detailed recounts are impossible.
In more trusting times, concern about an electronically fixed election might have been dismissed as paranoia. But after a programmer for an electronic wagering company in 2002 tried to rig betting on the Breeders' Cup horse race, such fears sound less far-fetched.
Experts from the Johns Hopkins University's Information Security Institute recently sounded an alarm about the computerized balloting machines Maryland has contracted to buy. "Our analysis shows that this voting system is far below even the most minimal security standards," they wrote. "For example, common voters, without any insider privileges, can cast unlimited votes without being detected by any mechanisms within the voting terminal."
Diebold Election Systems, which manufactures the machines, wasted no time in dismissing such concerns. But on Wednesday, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. prudently put the $55.6 million purchase on hold, pending an outside evaluation of the technology.
Maryland ought to look into a system that produces a paper record that can be verified by each voter and is then stored in ballot boxes to be used in manual audits and recounts. They may be more expensive to acquire, but their safeguards might be worth the extra money in the long run.
Rep. Rush D. Holt, a New Jersey Democrat, recently proposed such machines as a nationwide standard, though they are as yet untested on a wide scale and the concept is being debated by the League of Women Voters and other groups.
Whatever technology is selected, the whole country ought to have a consistent and safe tool for exercising democracy.
Before the critical Johns Hopkins review, Maryland was hoping to introduce new touch-screen machines in most jurisdictions by next year's elections. This, however, is a self-imposed deadline: Federal law does not mandate upgraded machines nationwide until 2006.
There is no need for a mad rush. It makes no sense for Maryland to buy a costly new system if it turns out to be vulnerable to manipulation. The integrity of voting must be beyond question.