At the North Carroll Senior Center yesterday, players halted an intense game of bingo to take lessons on the high-tech voting machines they will encounter for the first time during the March 2 primary.
Jo Liggett, 74, the first in a group of about 75 to test the Diebold AccuVote-TS touch-screen machine, approached the sample voting booth with trepidation. She can simultaneously oversee a dozen bingo cards but said anything that smacks of a computer intimidates her. Minutes after filing her mock ballot, she pronounced the process "clear and decisive."
"I thought I would be confused by all this computer business," she said. "But you can erase and do it over if you want. Trying to punch in the right numbers on a touch-tone phone is harder."
During the March 2 primary, most jurisdictions in the state will use the 16,000 touch-screen voting machines for the first time. Baltimore, the only exception, is scheduled to switch to the Diebold system in 2006.
State law requires one machine for every 200 registered voters, officials said. In Carroll, that works out to about 400 machines for 80,000 voters.
Carroll's elections board is working to educate seniors, who are often the largest group of voters, on the new machines, said Charles Foreman, election board member.
"Seniors are five times more likely to vote than younger people," said Foreman, who will be demonstrating the machines at the Taneytown Senior Center today. "But sometimes they can be overwhelmed by the quantity of information."
Foreman took to the North Carroll center a voting booth, a machine with a mock ballot and a voter access card to activate the system. He also left instructional brochures.
Betty Hale, 72, mastered the system in minutes. "It doesn't matter how old you are, anybody can do this," she said.
Patricia Matsko, Carroll's elections board director, said she and her staff have made similar presentations to many organizations.
"We are trying to get the word out to people about how to use these machines," she said. "So far, I have not heard of anyone having problems with them."
Janet Martin, 72, the North Carroll center's bingo caller, tested the touch-screen machine yesterday and pronounced it "easy as pie. In fact, I like it better than the old one."
The Diebold is "the newest, most sophisticated machine and probably the most criticized in the nation," Foreman told the North Carroll group, which gathers weekdays at the center in Hampstead. The device proved its worth in 2002 when it was tested in four Maryland counties. One recount exactly matched the original vote, he said.
"And you probably don't have to worry about chads," said Jeannette Budusky, 73.
Dot Atkinson, 74, said she appreciated the chance to test the machines before the primary.
"It is nice to learn about this ahead of time," she said. "All you have to do is read the information and not be afraid of a computer."
After her initial try on the touch screen, Ellen Becker, 81, said she preferred the old punch card system. With a little encouragement, she made a second attempt at the machine and changed her mind.
"I really had no trouble at all," she said. "I will be all right with this machine."
The Diebold system offers voters second chances - they can review their ballots, erase a vote and recast it before submitting their choices.
"The ballot review is most important," Matsko said. "People are often so intimidated after they have made an error that they let it go."
The touch system is also easier on arthritic hands, said Budusky, a former poll worker who has helped voters with all types of machines.
"Marking is hard for people with arthritis," she said. "This is just a touch and you are done."
Monzie Yingling, 84, who is nearly blind, remembered marking a ballot with a pencil in the living room of a neighbor's home in Manchester. She decided against taking a lesson on the new machine, even though the polls would provide headphones and a touch pad to the blind.
"I will do an absentee ballot with somebody I can trust helping me at home," she said. "But I will say that as long as you have a clear mind, you should vote."
Seniors in the audience stressed the importance of voting, and many said the ease of the new machines should encourage people to vote.
"Everyone should choose the people they want to represent them," Liggett said.
At 81, Isabelle Davidson could not recall an election in which she did not vote.
"It is important to keep voting, no matter how old you are," she said.