Counting votes


Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. says he now supports requiring Maryland's voting machines to produce paper receipts. And while that's a good idea, it's a shame the governor's endorsement is a day late and probably millions of dollars short.

Elections officials believe the state would have to scrap its current touch-screen system and spend as much as $65 million to bring in replacement machines to do this. And that's not even the worst of it. Replacing a statewide voting system normally takes one to two years, so there wouldn't be enough time to test the equipment or train elections personnel before September's primary. It's a shame Mr. Ehrlich vetoed legislation last year to study such reform. The state might have been positioned to do something about it today.

Nevertheless, the politicians in Annapolis need to take some deep breaths and calm down before voters start taking their rhetoric seriously. Yes, paper receipts would have been helpful as a means to audit election results, but it doesn't mean Maryland's current system is inaccurate - in fact, it's likely never been more exact or secure. And certainly there's no reason to lose confidence in "the State Board of Elections' ability to conduct fair and accurate elections," as the governor now claims to have.

What probably bothers Mr. Ehrlich most are the recent efforts by Democrats to expand voter turnout. Conventional wisdom is that these kinds of reforms almost always favor Democratic candidates. Mr. Ehrlich is right to be concerned about early voting because the elections office doesn't yet have a way to be absolutely certain a person doesn't vote twice - once in an early voting precinct and a second time in his home precinct on Election Day. But unlike the absence of paper receipts, this shortcoming is entirely correctable. Off-the-shelf technology is available that can keep a statewide database up to date, elections office employees say - if the governor will put the money needed to pay for such a system in the state budget.

It's hard to believe Mr. Ehrlich doesn't know all this. But then, Maryland's experience with voter fraud tends to be overstated. It's worth noting that in 2004, for instance, of the 3 million votes cast in Maryland's primary and general elections, the number of voter fraud prosecutions was - exactly one. Compare that with the hundreds of thousands of people who are eligible to vote but don't, often because the process is unnecessarily difficult. Still, nothing stirs Maryland Republicans like claims of hanky-panky in the vote count. The dull reality is that such impropriety is rare and getting rarer all the time.

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