State confident voting plan will prove secure

OCEAN CITY — OCEAN CITY - Maryland's top elections official expressed confidence yesterday that an independent security review of expensive new electronic voting machines would yield few problems, and the touch-screen system would be in place statewide for the presidential primary in March.

At the same time, state elections administrator Linda H. Lamone acknowledged that the state and counties are making contingency plans in case the $55.6 million contract with Diebold Election Systems is canceled or delayed because of security concerns.


"We hope, and we are fairly confident, we are going to be pleased with the report," said Lamone, making her first comments on the state's voting system since Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. asked for an outside review Aug. 6. Lamone participated in a panel on election issues at the Maryland Association of Counties summer meeting here.

Ehrlich's order came shortly after Johns Hopkins University researchers released a report concluding that the software running the Diebold touch-screen machines the state has agreed to buy was riddled with flaws that could allow hackers to vote multiple times or distort election outcomes.


The researchers examined a version of the code they downloaded from a publicly available Internet site - a code that the company has said is outdated. Lamone and others have also said that the researchers did not take into account real-world safeguards provided by election judges and others.

"We in the elections community really, honestly believe the report fails to understand the way elections are conducted," Lamone said yesterday.

The new study by Science Application International Corp. of California is expected to be completed early next month. That gives counties more than enough time, Lamone said, to have the new machines operating before the presidential primary. Georgia used touch-screen voting in its last election, she said, and installed the system in four months.

Still, state and county officials are preparing alternatives in case the review reveals serious concerns that cannot be easily corrected.

The most likely scenario: Counties would extend their agreements with providers of the older, optical scanning voting machines, which are still being used by 19 counties. Four Maryland counties, including Montgomery and Prince George's, used the Diebold machines in last year's elections.

"They have been working on contingencies," said Joe Getty, a policy director for Ehrlich.

State and federal law require Maryland to upgrade its voting technology in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election in Florida. Diebold was selected during the administration of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, and Ehrlich so far has not appeared interested in trying to overturn the decision.

"No system is fail-safe," Getty said.


The touch-screen technology, Lamone and others say, still seems the best available. Its value was proven in Allegany County last year, they say, when a closely contested race between former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and current Del. LeRoy E. Meyers Jr. went to a recount.

"It was the only recount in the state of Maryland where we didn't lose a vote," said Allegany County Administrator Vance C. Ishler.

The county association convention concludes today with an address by Ehrlich, who is expected to announce findings of a 25-member commission on government efficiency headed by former Gov. Marvin Mandel.

The commission has been divided into committees focused on law enforcement agencies, independent agencies, environmental programs and adjudicatory functions. The committees will recommend whether state agencies in each area should remain independent, be absorbed into one of the existing departments or be otherwise restructured.