Elections: Here Maryland goes again

The Baltimore Sun

Having survived one election season made tumultuous by problems with new electronic voting systems, Maryland voters appear likely to face fresh voting challenges during the 2008 presidential election cycle.

It's too early to tell just what type of equipment Marylanders will cast votes on in 2008, but a national consensus is growing that electronic voting machines like those used in Maryland will need to be upgraded or replaced before the next national election.

Any change in Maryland will come at a considerable cost and its own set of challenges, as well as the admission that the state erred in purchasing inadequate technology after Florida's troubles in 2000 spawned a nationwide shift toward computerized voting.

On Sept. 12, a new electronic voter check-in system repeatedly crashed; a rare miscue in Montgomery County left machines unusable for the greater part of the morning; and election judges who were absent or poorly trained on the new electronic machines - particularly in Baltimore - frustrated voters.

Both Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and a spokesman for Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley say the cost of electoral reform will weigh heavily on the General Assembly during the coming 90-day session.

Miller said in an interview with The Sun last week that the legislature was considering the possibility of adding a paper trail to the state's touch-screen machines, which computer scientists and others have argued would reduce the chances of someone hacking into and tampering with election results.

"The reason we didn't move forward immediately last year was the cost factor," Miller said.

The lack of a paper or other independent record to be used as a check on possible problems with electronic voting machines has become a significant national issue.

A group of scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology recently concluded that electronic voting without a paper trail or some check apart from the machine's own software to confirm vote totals is unacceptable.

And a subcommittee of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission recently endorsed the need for paper trails or other independent verification - although it also recommended grandfathering in Maryland's existing system.

O'Malley has formed a team to study what do about problems with the Maryland's electronic voting system, but three options are already being discussed.

The state could jettison its current ATM-style equipment and return to paper ballots. Voters would fill in ovals or complete a broken arrow to mark their choices. The ballots would be counted by running them through a computer, called an optical scanner, and then saved in the event of a recount.

Or the state could add a paper trail to its existing equipment. A credit card-style receipt listing a voter's choices would scroll up behind a glass window next to the touch-screen. The voter could review the receipt, which would be saved and make a recount possible independent of the results generated by the machines' software.

Finally, the state could trade in its machines for newer models that come equipped with a printer - hopefully at a steep discount.

Retrofitting the state's existing equipment would seem to be an intuitive option, except for one key obstacle: No such printer is on the market.

The state's voting equipment manufacturer, Diebold Election Systems Inc., unveiled a prototype of a retrofitted printer two years ago, but production has not moved forward since then, said company spokesman Mark Radke.

Should the General Assembly require an independent paper record of all votes and election officials choose to retrofit the equipment with printers, Radke said, the company would manufacture them.

Doing so, however, would again put the state in the position of using equipment that had never been used elsewhere or tested in a real-life setting during a high-pressure 2008 presidential election year.

Maryland did that this year with a new model of voter check-in machine, which crashed in the primary after every 43rd voter arrived. Diebold had not adequately tested a portion of the software that was customized for use in Maryland.

"Slapping a printer on there does not seem wise - our risk would be greater," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat, who is pushing for statewide use of optical scanners.

Absentee ballots are already cast that way.

"One criticism you hear from activists who want paper trails is that they think vendors have done some half-hearted efforts at making these printers," said Sean Greene, research director at electionline.org. "They don't seem very excited about them."

Absent a product, Miller suggested that the state could swap its existing Diebold model for a newer one, comparing the trade with one Maryland made to arm its state troopers with an updated Beretta handgun.

"Diebold doesn't want a bad reputation," Miller said.

But such paper trails - either in new machines or retrofitted ones - have their critics. The San Francisco-based Election Science Institute concluded that had a recount of the May 2 primary in Ohio's Cuyahoga County been necessary, it might not have been possible because of flaws in the printed vote records.

Nearly 10 percent of the county's official ballots - those receipts that scrolled up behind the windows - were "destroyed, blank, illegible, missing, taped together or otherwise compromised." The institute's study described discrepancies among paper and electronic records as "pervasive."

The printing and inspection of the receipts by voters on Election Day also slows down the process - meaning that to avoid longer lines in 2008 the state would need to purchase more machines, said Lloyd Knowles, Bobo's husband and an engineer, who is serving as her adviser on this issue.

The third proposal, which unanimously passed the House of Delegates this year, would be to return to optical scan equipment.

William Bowser, who oversaw the initial contract with Diebold and is now the state's deputy procurement chief, said that optical scan machines are "one of the least expensive methods," but argues that they have disadvantages, too - namely for people who have poor or no eyesight.

"You can adjust the size of the type on these machines," said Gilles W. Burger, president of the State Board of Elections. "Even the smallest print on these machines is larger than the print on a paper ballot."

The disabled have been one of the strongest defenders of touch-screen machines, said Greene of Electionline.org.

To use the state's current equipment, a blind person puts on a set of headphones. The computer reads the ballot aloud, and the voter selects candidates by typing a number on a keypad. Without such technology, a blind voter would need assistance from an election judge.

Voters, in general, also appear to like ATM-style interaction with the equipment. A telephone survey of 800 voters in the 2004 election conducted by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County found that 99 percent of respondents thought the Diebold machines were "easy to use" and 85 percent thought the machines "made voting quicker."

Whether the 2006 election changed public opinion is unclear.

"There are a number of people who want to move away from those machines, but they still have strong defenders," Greene said. "And then there's the whole issue of cost."

If the existing touch-screen equipment were abandoned, the state would essentially be flushing millions of dollars already spent on technology and maintenance.

"The legislature would essentially be saying start over again," Burger said. "It would be them making the realization that the money wasn't well spent."

Doing nothing, however, appears increasingly likely not to be an option. Congress is expected to consider requiring paper voting records for all federal elections next year.

Although the General Assembly's expected push for voting reform next month has been driven primarily by issues within the state, isolated but significant meltdowns in other states are prompting the federal push for reform.

A disputed Florida congressional race, for instance, has prompted lawsuits and a continuing state audit of touch-screen voting machines in Sarasota County.

According to local reports, more than 13 percent of Sarasota County voters - about 18,000 of them - failed to make a selection in the hotly contested 13th District congressional race, in which the Republican was declared the winner by 369 votes. The proportion of voters who skipped that race in other counties in the congressional district was between 2 percent and 6 percent.

The machines do not have paper trails and are manufactured by Election Systems & Software, a Diebold competitor. One potential culprit is a poorly organized touch-screen ballot, but an expert testifying in court proceedings has suggested programming error.

In response to that controversy And failures in Denver and Indiana, New Jersey Democrat Rush D. Holt is expected to reintroduce a bill requiring paper trails in the U.S. House of Representatives next month.

The bill would include $150 million in aid to the handful of states, including Maryland, which would need to make upgrades, said Matt Dennis, a spokesman for Holt. Decisions about funding have not been made in the Senate, where Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California is expected to introduce similar legislation, said Howard Gantman, incoming staff director for the Senate Rules Committee.

"We've seen in 2000, 2004 and now 2006 how the technical administration of local elections can have a nationwide impact," he said. "This is not an issue where if there are problems in one jurisdiction, the consequences remain within one jurisdiction. Problems can impact the future of the whole country."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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