A day after Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. chastised the State Board of Elections, saying that he has no confidence in Maryland's voting system, the state's chief elections administrator told a Senate committee that changing Maryland's voting equipment would be "catastrophic."
In a scathing letter to State Board of Elections Chairman Gilles Burger, Ehrlich said he is concerned about security and accuracy risks in the state's electronic voting system. He called on the agency to adopt a voter-verification system, such as a paper receipt, for its touch-screen voting machines.
But at a hearing yesterday on a Senate bill that would implement such technology, Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone said that doing so would require decertification of the state's current voting system and the purchase of machines that she said could not be obtained by the fall election. The new system would mean added costs and require voters, judges and observers to be retrained, she said.
"We've already spent a lot of money on the system," she said. "We would literally be throwing it away. I have confidence in this system. I have confidence in the ability of my office and the hardworking specialists in each county to conduct a fair and accurate election in 2006."
Diebold Elections Systems, the Ohio-based manufacturer from which Maryland purchased on its statewide automated-tellerlike machines for $55 million in 2003, lauded Maryland's system as the most accurate in the country.
Mark Radke, director of Diebold's elections systems, said an optical-scan system, which some advocates would like to see implemented, is two to three times as prone to errors as the touch-screen machines.
"The system has proven to be secure," he said. "It's disturbing to see this kind of false information being distributed."
Radke met with House lawmakers in a closed-door meeting in Annapolis yesterday to discuss their concerns about Diebold's machines in other states and the viability of a paper trail for the state's touch-screen machines.
Radke also said an example in which a computer expert successfully hacked into a Diebold system in Leon County, Fla., was akin to "giving the keys to someone's house and asking them not to steal anything."
Maryland's memory cards, which store the recorded votes, are equipped with encryption devices and digital signatures that prevent tampering, he said.
Del. Jon S. Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said the Diebold representatives quelled the fears of some lawmakers.
"We wanted to make sure Diebold gave us the full story about what we have," said Cardin, who added that he left the meeting feeling confident in the state's system.
Democratic leadership continued to criticize Ehrlich yesterday, sending a letter to Lamone that called the governor's demand for voting paper trails last-minute and inconsistent with his previous opinions.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch pointed to a 2003 statement by Ehrlich in which he discussed the results of an independent study done on the state's Diebold system.
Ehrlich said then that with additional tests and security procedures, "the Diebold machine and source code, if operated properly, can contribute to one of the safest and most secure election systems available."
Busch and Miller said Ehrlich's recent complaints to Lamone could "unjustifiably undermine public confidence in the integrity of the state election process."
Miller had earlier condemned Ehrlich's letter as election-year politics, while Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, who sponsored the Senate bill on paper trails, blamed Ehrlich for failing to allocate money in the budget for such a system.
In his letter, Ehrlich expressed deep concerns about the reliability and security of the machines in light of recent reports on problems of Diebold technology elsewhere. He blamed the state agency that runs elections for poor management, inaccurate cost estimates and being partisan. He asked that the elections board respond to his concerns by Feb 28.
Ehrlich also called on lawmakers to postpone plans to offer early voting until 2008 because he was concerned that having the polls open days before Election Day would leave the Diebold systems susceptible to fraud. Democrats said they didn't agree and planned to move forward with early voting.
Meanwhile, Diebold maintained yesterday that the systems have been used for early voting the past three years in Los Angeles County with no problems.
But advocates of voting system reform said they are not convinced that the machines are reliable, insisting that the system used in Maryland is error-prone and riddled with security flaws.
Linda Schade, founder of TrueVote MD, said Baltimore County's 2004 primary election experienced problems in some precincts where she said votes were not recorded.
"Frankly, I don't know how Baltimore County recorded vote totals," she said.
Sen. James Brochin, a Democrat from Baltimore County, appeared alarmed with the claims.
"I just want to get through the 2006 election without problems," he said. "I worry about a catastrophe in 2006 ... where nobody knows if we've had a secure election or not."
Diebold officials said the concerns in Baltimore County involved human error, not mechanical problems, and said that no votes were lost in that election.
Support of the state's current election system was bolstered by a report presented yesterday by Donald F. Norris, director of the Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis and Research at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The report polled 800 voters on their opinions of touch-screen technology and showed "no crisis of confidence" in the system.
John T. Willis, who served as Maryland secretary of state from 1995 to 2003 and has spoken widely on voting issues, said that after 25 years of experience overseeing voting systems he's confident that the Diebold system is accurate and secure. He blamed politics for muddying the issue.
"This shows, in my opinion, why the election process needs to be independent from the political process," he said.