Taking up one of the most contentious election reform issues facing states around the country, a House of Delegates committee heard a bill yesterday that would force Maryland to upgrade its 16,000 new electronic voting machines to allow voters to verify that their ballots were cast accurately.
Proponents say the legislation would ensure that the $55 million voting system can be trusted when it is rolled out in nearly every precinct in the state in the Democratic presidential primary in three weeks. Opponents say it would add unnecessary expense and extra work to a cumbersome new process.
Del. Kumar P. Barve, a sponsor of the bill that requires a "voter-verified paper trail," said that as an accountant, he finds it imperative to have something tangible to prove the accuracy of votes if the computerized results should be questioned.
"So if there's any reason to doubt an election," the Montgomery County Democrat told the House Ways and Means Committee, "you have a backup."
The bill would force Maryland to add printers capable of printing out every ballot cast in the November election, though Barve and others agreed it probably isn't feasible before 2006. The machines, purchased from Diebold Election Systems, have been criticized for being vulnerable to computer hackers.
Some have said the touch-screen machines could be manipulated so voters would think they were casting a vote for one candidate when in fact they voted for someone else. By looking at a piece of paper mirroring their vote, the voter would be more confident it was correctly counted. Those pieces of paper would be saved by the state and could be used if a recount were deemed necessary.
A legislative analysis said adding the printers could be quite costly. But several witnesses yesterday said California is requiring a paper trail in time for the 2006 elections and Diebold has offered to give San Diego County free printers to meet that obligation.
Linda H. Lamone, the state's elections administrator, told the committee she can't support the paper ballots. She noted that the federal government still hasn't developed standards for a paper trail.
She said she worries that the printers will break down and cause even bigger headaches for over-taxed poll workers. And she said blind voters who have waited years to vote in secret (the machines have a headset and keyboard adaptation to help those who need it) would be back to where they started.